/ Language: English / Genre:sf_history

The Mammoth Hunters

Jean Auel

The authenticity of background detail, the lilting prose rhythms and the appealing conceptual audacity that won many fans for The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of the Horses continue to work their spell in this third installment of Auel's projected six-volume Earth's Children saga set in Ice Age Europe. The heroine, 18-year-old Ayla, cursed and pronounced dead by the "flathead" clan that reared her, now takes her chances with the mammoth-hunting Mamutoi, attended by her faithful lover, Jondalar. Gradually overcoming the prejudice aroused by her flathead connection, Ayla wins acceptance into the new clan through her powers as a healer, her shamanistic potential, her skill with spear and slingshot and her way with animals (she rides a horse, domesticates a wolf cub, both "firsts," it would seem, and even rides a lion). She also wins the heart of a bone-carving artist of "sparkling wit" (not much in evidence), which forces her to make a painful choice between the curiously complaisant Jondalar, her first instructor in love's delights, and this more charismatic fellow. The story is lyric rather than dramatic, and Ayla and her lovers are projections of a romantic rather than a historical imagination, but readers caught up in the charm of Auel's story probably won't care. 750,000 first printing; $300,000 ad/promo; paperback rights to Bantam; Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club dual main selections; author tour.

Jean M. Auel, Джин М. Ауэл

The Mammoth Hunters

(Earth Children – 3)

For MARSHALL,

who has become a man to be proud of,

and for BEVERLY,

who helped,

and for CHRISTOPHER, BRIAN, and MELLISSA,

with Love.

Lion Camp Earthlodge

ENTRY area – storage of fuel, implements, outer clothes

FIRST hearth – cooking hearth and space for gathering

SECOND – Lion Hearth

Talut – headman

Nezzie

Danug

Latie

Rugie

Rydag

THIRD – Fox Hearth

Wymez

Ranec

FOURTH – Mammoth Hearth – space for ceremonies, gathering, projects, visitors

Mamut – shaman

Ayla

Jondalar

FIFTH – Reindeer Hearth

Manuv

Tronie

Tornec

Nuvie

Hartal

SIXTH – Crane Hearth

Crozie

Fralie

Frebec

Crisavec

Tasher

(Bectie)

SEVENTH – Aurochs Hearth

Tulie – headwoman

Barzec

Deegie

Druwez

Brinan

Tusie

(Tarneg)

1

Trembling with fear, Ayla clung to the tall man beside her as she watched the strangers approach. Jondalar put his arm around her protectively, but she still shook.

He's so big! Ayla thought, gaping at the man in the lead, the one with hair and beard the color of fire. She had never seen anyone so big. He even made Jondalar seem small, though the man who held her towered over most men. The red-haired man coming toward them was more than tall; he was huge, a bear of a man. His neck bulged, his chest could have filled out two ordinary men, his massive biceps matched most men's thighs.

Ayla glanced at Jondalar and saw no fear in his face, but his smile was guarded. They were strangers, and in his long travels he had learned to be wary of strangers.

"I don't recall seeing you before," the big man said without preamble. "What Camp are you from?" He did not speak Jondalar's language, Ayla noticed, but one of the others he had been teaching her.

"No Camp," Jondalar said. "We are not Mamutoi." He unclasped Ayla and took a step forward, holding out both hands, palms upward showing he was hiding nothing, in the greeting of friendliness. "I am Jondalar of the Zelandonii."

The hands were not accepted. "Zelandonii? That's a strange… Wait, weren't there two foreign men staying with those river people that live to the west? It seems to me the name I heard was something like that."

"Yes, my brother and I lived with them," Jondalar conceded.

The man with the flaming beard looked thoughtful for a while, then, unexpectedly, he lunged for Jondalar and grabbed the tall blond man in a bone-crunching bear hug.

"Then we are related!" he boomed, a broad smile warming his face. "Tholie is the daughter of my cousin!"

Jondalar's smile returned, a little shaken. "Tholie! A Mamutoi woman named Tholie was my brother's cross-mate! She taught me your language."

"Of course! I told you. We are related." He grasped the hands that Jondalar had extended in friendship, which he had rejected before. "I am Talut, headman of the Lion Camp."

Everyone was smiling, Ayla noticed. Talut beamed a grin at her, then eyed her appreciatively. "I see you are not traveling with a brother now," he said to Jondalar.

Jondalar put his arm around her again, and she noticed a fleeting look of pain wrinkle his brow before he spoke. "This is Ayla."

"It's an unusual name. Is she of the river people?"

Jondalar was taken aback by the abruptness of his questioning, then, remembering Tholie, he smiled inwardly. The short, stocky woman he knew bore little resemblance to the great hulk of a man standing there on the riverbank, but they were chipped from the same flint. They both had the same direct approach, the same unselfconscious – almost ingenuous – candor. He didn't know what to say. Ayla was not going to be easy to explain.

"No, she has been living in a valley some days' journey from here."

Talut looked puzzled. "I have not heard of a woman with her name living nearby. Are you sure she is Mamutoi?"

"I'm sure she is not."

"Then who are her people? Only we who hunt mammoth live in this region."

"I have no people," Ayla said, lifting her chin with a touch of defiance.

Talut appraised her shrewdly. She had spoken the words in his language, but the quality of her voice and the way she made the sounds were… strange. Not unpleasant, but unusual. Jondalar spoke with the accent of a language foreign to him; the difference in the way she spoke went beyond accent. Talut's interest was piqued.

"Well, this is no place to talk," Talut said, finally. "Nezzie will give me the Mother's own wrath if I don't invite you to visit. Visitors always bring a little excitement, and we haven't had visitors for a while. The Lion Camp would welcome you, Jondalar of the Zelandonii, and Ayla of No People. Will you come?"

"What do you say, Ayla? Would you like to visit?" Jondalar asked, switching to Zelandonii so she could answer truthfully without fear of offending. "Isn't it time you met your own kind? Isn't that what Iza told you to do? Find your own people?" He didn't want to seem too eager, but after so long without anyone else to talk to, he was anxious to visit.

"I don't know," she said, frowning with indecision. "What will they think of me? He wanted to know who my people were. I don't have any people any more. What if they don't like me?"

"They will like you, Ayla, believe me. I know they will. Talut invited you, didn't he? It didn't matter to him that you have no people. Besides, you'll never know if they will accept you – or if you will like them – if you don't give them a chance. These are the kind of people you should have grown up with, you know. We don't have to stay long. We can leave any time."

"We can leave any time?"

"Of course."

Ayla looked down at the ground, trying to make up her mind. She wanted to go with them; she felt an attraction to these people, and a curiosity to know more about them, but she felt a tight knot of fear in her stomach. She glanced up and saw two shaggy steppe horses grazing on the rich grass of the plain near the river, and her fear intensified.

"What about Whinney! What will we do with her? What if they want to kill her? I can't let anyone hurt Whinney!"

Jondalar hadn't thought about Whinney. What would they think? he wondered. "I don't know what they will do, Ayla, but I don't think they would kill her if we tell them she is special and not meant for food." He remembered his surprise, and his initial feeling of awe over Ayla's relationship with the horse. It would be interesting to see their reaction. "I have an idea."

Talut did not understand what Ayla and Jondalar said to each other, but he knew the woman was reluctant, and the man was trying to coax her. He also noticed that she spoke with the same unusual accent, even in his language. His language, the headman realized, but not hers.

He was pondering the enigma of the woman with a certain relish – he enjoyed the new and unusual; the inexplicable challenged him. But then the mystery took on an entirely new dimension. Ayla whistled, loud and shrill. Suddenly, a hay-colored mare and a colt of an unusually deep shade of brown galloped into their midst, directly to the woman, and stood quietly while she touched them! The big man suppressed a shudder of awe. This was beyond anything he had ever known.

Was she Mamut? he wondered, with growing apprehension. One with special powers? Many of Those Who Served the Mother claimed magic to call animals and direct the hunt, but he had never seen anyone with such control over animals that they would come at a signal. She had a unique talent. It was a little frightening – but think how much a Camp could benefit from such talent. Kills could be so easy!

Just as Talut was getting over the shock, the young woman gave him another. Holding onto the mare's stiff stand-up mane, she sprang up on the back of the horse and sat astride her. The big man's mouth gaped open in astonishment as the horse with Ayla on her back galloped along the edge of the flyer. With the colt following behind, they raced up the slope to the steppes beyond. The wonder in Talut's eyes was shared by the rest of the band, particularly a young girl of twelve years. She edged toward the headman and leaned against him as though for support.

"How did she do that, Talut?" the girl asked, in a small voice that held surprise and awe, and a tinge of yearning. "That little horse, he was so close, I could almost have touched him."

Talut's expression softened. "You'll have to ask her, Latie. Or, perhaps, Jondalar," he said, turning to the tall stranger.

"I'm not sure myself," he replied. "Ayla has a special way with animals. She raised Whinney from a foal."

"Whinney?"

"That's as close as I can say the name she has given the mare. When she says it, you'd think she was a horse. The colt is Racer. I named him – she asked me to. That's Zelandonii for someone who runs fast. It also means someone who tries hard to be best. The first time I saw Ayla, she was helping the mare deliver the colt."

"That must have been a sight! I wouldn't think a mare would let anyone get close to her at that time," one of the other men said.

The riding demonstration had the effect Jondalar had hoped for, and he thought the time was right to bring up Ayla's concern. "I think she'd like to come and visit your Camp, Talut, but she's afraid you may think the horses are just any horses to be hunted, and since they are not afraid of people, they would be too easy to kill."

"They would at that. You must have known what I was thinking, but who could help it?"

Talut watched Ayla riding back into view, looking like some strange animal, half-human and half-horse. He was glad he had not come upon them unknowing. It would have been unnerving. He wondered for a moment what it would be like to ride on the back of a horse, and if it would make him appear so startling. And then, picturing himself sitting astride one of the rather short, though sturdy, steppe horses like Whinney, he laughed out loud.

"I could carry that horse easier than she could carry me!" he said.

Jondalar chuckled. It hadn't been hard to follow Talut's line of thought. Several people smiled, or chuckled, and Jondalar realized they must all have been thinking about riding a horse. It was not so strange. It had occurred to him when he first saw Ayla on Whinney's back.

Ayla had seen the shocked surprise on the faces of the small band of people and, if Jondalar had not been waiting for her, she would have kept on going right back to her valley. She'd had enough of disapproval during her younger years for actions that were not acceptable. And enough freedom since, while she was living alone, not to want to subject herself to criticism for following her own inclinations. She was ready to tell Jondalar he could visit these people if he wanted; she was going back.

But when she returned, and saw Talut still chuckling over his mental picture of himself riding the horse, she reconsidered. Laughter had become precious to her. She had not been allowed to laugh when she lived with the Clan; it made them nervous and uncomfortable. Only with Durc, in secret, had she laughed out loud. It was Baby, and Whinney, who had taught her to enjoy the feeling of laughter, but Jondalar was the first person to share it openly with her.

She watched the man laughing easily with Talut. He looked up and smiled, and the magic of his impossibly vivid blue eyes touched a place deep inside that resonated with a warm, tingling glow, and she felt a great welling up of love for him. She couldn't go back to the valley, not without him. Just the thought of living without him brought a strangling constriction to her throat, and the burning ache of tears held back.

As she rode toward them, she noticed that, though Jondalar wasn't as big as the red-haired man in size, he was nearly as tall, and bigger than the other three men. No, one was a boy, she realized. And was that a girl with them? She found herself observing the group of people surreptitiously, not wanting to stare.

Her body movements signaled Whinney to a stop, then, swinging her leg over, she slid off. Both horses seemed nervous as Talut approached, and she stroked Whinney and put an arm around Racer's neck. She was as much in need of the familiar reassurance of their presence as they were of hers.

"Ayla, of No People," he said, not sure if it was a proper way to address her, though for this woman of uncanny talent, it well might be, "Jondalar says you fear harm will come to these horses if you visit with us. I say here, as long as Talut is headman of the Lion Camp, no harm will come to that mare or her young one. I would like you to visit, and bring the horses." His smile broadened with a chuckle. "No one will believe us otherwise!"

She was feeling more relaxed about it now, and she knew Jondalar wanted to visit. She had no real reason to refuse, and she was drawn to the easy, friendly laughter of the huge red-haired man.

"Yes, I come," she said. Talut nodded, smiling, and wondered about her, her intriguing accent, her awesome way with horses. Who was Ayla of No People?

Ayla and Jondalar had camped beside the rushing river and had decided that morning, before they met the band from the Lion Camp, that it was time to turn back. The waterway was too large to cross without difficulty, and not worth the effort if they were going to turn around and retrace their route. The steppeland east of the valley where Ayla had lived alone for three years had been more accessible, and the young woman hadn't bothered to take the difficult roundabout way to the west out of the valley very often, and was largely unfamiliar with that area. Though they had started out toward the west, they had no particular destination in mind, and ended up traveling north, and then east instead, but much farther than Ayla had ever traveled on her hunting forays.

Jondalar had convinced her to make the exploratory trip to get her used to traveling. He wanted to take her home with him, but his home was far to the west. She had been reluctant, and scared, to leave her secure valley to live with unknown people in an unknown place. Though he was eager to return after traveling for many years, he had reconciled himself to spending the winter with her in the valley. It would be a long trek back – likely to take a full year – and it would be better to start in late spring, anyway. By then, he was sure he could convince her to come with him. He didn't even want to consider any other alternative.

Ayla had found him, badly mauled and nearly dead, at the beginning of the warm season that was now seeing its last days, and she knew the tragedy he had suffered. They fell in love while she was nursing him back to health, though they were long in overcoming the barriers of their vastly different backgrounds. They were still learning each other's ways and moods.

Ayla and Jondalar finished breaking camp and much to the surprise – and interest – of the waiting people, packed their supplies and equipment on the horse, rather than in backframes or haversacks which they would have carried themselves. Though they had sometimes ridden double on the sturdy horse, Ayla thought Whinney and her colt would be less nervous if they saw her. The two of them walked behind the band of people, Jondalar leading Racer by a long rope attached to a halter, which he had devised. Whinney followed Ayla with no visible guidance.

They followed the course of the river for several miles through a broad valley that sloped down from the surrounding grassy plains. Chest-high standing hay, seed heads nodding ripe and heavy, billowed in golden waves on the near slopes matching the cold rhythm of frigid air that blew in fitful bursts from the massive glaciers to the north. On the open steppes, a few bent and gnarled pine and birch trees huddled along watercourses, their roots seeking the moisture given up to the desiccating winds. Near the river, reeds and sedges were still green, though a chill wind rattled through deciduous branches, bereft of leaves.

Latie hung back, glancing now and then at the horses and the woman, until they sighted several people around a bend in the river. Then she ran ahead, wanting to be first to tell of the visitors. At her shouts, people turned and gawked.

Other people were coming out of what appeared to Ayla to be a large hole in the riverbank, a cave of some sort, perhaps, but like none she had ever seen before. It seemed to have grown out of the slope facing the river, but it did not have the random shape of rock or earthen banks. Grass grew on the sod roof, but the opening was too even, too regular, and felt strangely unnatural. It was a perfectly symmetrical arch.

Suddenly, at a deep emotional level, it struck her. It was not a cave, and these people were not Clan! They did not look like Iza, who was the only mother she remembered, or like Creb or Brun, short and muscular, with large eyes shadowed by heavy brow ridges, a forehead that sloped back, and a chinless jaw that jutted forward. These people looked like her. They were like the ones she had been born to. Her mother, her real mother, must have looked like one of these women. These were the Others! This was their place! The realization brought a rush of excitement and a tingle of fear.

Stunned silence greeted the strangers – and their even stranger horses – as they arrived at the permanent winter site of the Lion Camp. Then everyone seemed to talk at once.

"Talut! What have you brought this time?" "Where did you get those horses?" "What did you do to them?" Someone addressed Ayla: "How do you make them stay?" "What Camp are they from, Talut?"

The noisy, gregarious people crowded forward, eager to see and touch both the people and the horses. Ayla was overwhelmed, confused. She wasn't used to so many people. She wasn't used to people talking, particularly all of them talking at once. Whinney was sidestepping, flicking her ears, head high, neck arched, trying to protect her frightened colt and shy away from the people closing in.

Jondalar could see Ayla's confusion, and the nervousness of the horses, but he couldn't make Talut or the rest of the people understand. The mare was sweating, swishing her tail, dancing in circles. Suddenly, she could stand it no longer. She reared up, neighing in fear, and lashed out with hard hooves, driving the people back.

Whinney's distress focused Ayla's attention. She called her name with a sound like a comforting nicker, and signaled with gestures she had used to communicate before Jondalar had taught her to speak.

"Talut! No one must touch the horses unless Ayla allows it! Only she can control them. They are gentle, but the mare can be dangerous if she is provoked or feels her colt is threatened. Someone could get hurt," Jondalar said.

"Stay back! You heard him," Talut shouted with a booming voice that silenced everyone. When the people and horses settled down, Talut continued in a more normal tone. "The woman is Ayla. I promised her that no harm would come to the horses if they came to visit. I promised as headman of the Lion Camp. This is Jondalar of the Zelandonii, and a kinsman, brother of Tholie's cross-mate." Then, with a grin of self-satisfaction; he added, "Talut has brought some visitors!"

There were nods of agreement. The people stood around, staring with unfeigned curiosity, but far enough away to avoid the horse's kicking hooves. Even if the strangers had left that moment, they had brought enough interest and gossip to last for years to come. News that two foreign men were in the region, living with the river people to the southwest, had been talked about at Summer Meetings. The Mamutoi traded with the Sharamudoi, and since Tholie, who was a kinswoman, had chosen a river man, the Lion Camp had been even more interested. But they never expected one of the foreign men to walk into their Camp, particularly not with a woman who had some magic control over horses.

"Are you all right?" Jondalar asked Ayla.

"They frightened Whinney, and Racer, too. Do people always talk at once like that? Women and men at the same time? It's confusing, and they are so loud, how do you know who is saying what? Maybe we should have gone back to the valley." She was hugging the mare's neck, leaning against her, drawing comfort as well as giving it.

Jondalar knew Ayla was almost as distressed as the horses. The noisy press of people had been a shock for her. Maybe they shouldn't stay too long. Perhaps it would be better to start with just two or three people at a time, until she became accustomed to her kind of people again, but he wondered what he'd do if she never really did. Well, they were here now. He could wait and see.

"Sometimes people are loud, and talk all at once, but mostly one person talks at a time. And I think they'll be careful around the horses now, Ayla," he said, as she started to unload the pack baskets tied on both sides of the animal by a harness she had made out of leather thongs.

While she was busy, Jondalar took Talut aside and quietly told him the horses, and Ayla, were a little nervous, and needed some time to get used to everyone. "It would be better if they could be left alone for a while."

Talut understood, and moved among the people of the Camp, talking to each one. They dispersed, turning to other tasks, preparing food, working on hides or tools, so they could watch without being so obvious about it. They were uneasy, too. Strangers were interesting, but a woman with such compelling magic might do something unexpected.

Only a few children stayed to watch with avid interest while the man and woman unpacked, but Ayla didn't mind them. She hadn't seen children in years, not since she'd left the Clan, and was as curious about them as they were about her. She took off the harness and Racer's halter, then patted and stroked Whinney, then Racer. After giving the colt a good scratching and an affectionate hug, she looked up to see Latie staring at the young animal with longing.

"You like touch horse?" Ayla asked.

"Could I?"

"Come. Give hand. I show." She took Latie's hand and held it to the shaggy winter coat of the half-grown horse. Racer turned his head to sniff and nuzzle the girl.

The girl's smile of gratitude was a gift. "He likes me!"

"He like scratch, too. Like this," Ayla said, showing the child the colt's special itchy places.

Racer was delighted with the attention, and showed it, and Latie was beside herself with joy. The colt had attracted her from the beginning. Ayla turned her back on the two to help Jondalar and didn't notice another child approach. When she turned around, she gasped and felt the blood drain from her face.

"Is it all right if Rydag touches the horse?" Latie said. "He can't talk, but I know he wants to." Rydag always caused people to react with surprise. Latie was used to it.

"Jondalar!" Ayla cried in a hoarse whisper. "That child, he could be my son! He looks like Durc!"

He turned, and opened his eyes in stunned surprise. It was a child of mixed spirits.

Flatheads – the ones Ayla always referred to as Clan – were animals to most people, and children like this were thought of by many as "abominations," half-animal, half-human. He had been shocked when he first understood that Ayla had given birth to a mixed son. The mother of such a child was usually a pariah, cast out for fear she would draw the evil animal spirit again and cause other women to give birth to such abominations. Some people didn't even want to admit they existed, and to find one here living with people was more than unexpected. It was a shock. Where had the boy come from?

Ayla and the child were gazing at each other, oblivious to everything around them. He's thin for one who is half-Clan, Ayla thought. They are usually big-boned and muscular. Even Durc wasn't this thin. He's sickly, Ayla's trained medicine woman's eye told her. A problem since birth, with the strong muscle in the chest that pulsed and throbbed and made the blood move, she guessed. But those facts she stored without thinking; she was looking more closely at his face, and his head, for the similarities, and the differences between this child and her son.

His large, brown, intelligent eyes were like Durc's, even to the look of ancient wisdom far beyond his years – she felt a pang of longing and a lump in her throat – but there was also pain and suffering, not all of it physical, which Durc had never known. She was filled with compassion. This child's brows were not as pronounced, she decided after careful study. Even at just three years old, when she left, the bony ridges above Durc's eyes had been well developed. Durc's eyes and protruding brow ridges were all Clan, but his forehead was like this child's. Neither was pushed back and flattened like the Clan, but high and vaulted, like hers.

Her thoughts strayed. Durc would be six years now, she recalled, old enough to go with the men when they practiced with their hunting weapons. But Brun will be teaching him to hunt, not Broud. She felt a flush of anger remembering Broud. She would never forget how the son of Brun's mate had nursed his hatred of her until he could take her baby away, out of spite, and force her out of the clan. She closed her eyes as the pain of remembering tore through her like a knife. She didn't want to believe that she would never see her son again.

She opened her eyes to Rydag, and took a deep breath.

I wonder how old this boy is? He's small, but he must be close to Durc's age, she thought, comparing the two again. Rydag's skin was fair, and his hair was dark and curly, but lighter and softer than the bushy brown hair more common to the Clan. The biggest difference between this child and her son, Ayla noted, was his chin and neck. Her son had a long neck like hers – he had choked on his food sometimes, which the other Clan babies never did – and a receding but distinct chin. This boy had the Clan's short neck, and forward-thrusting jaw. Then she remembered. Latie said he couldn't talk.

Suddenly, in a moment of understanding, she knew what this child's life must be like. It was one thing for a girl of five, who had lost her family in an earthquake and who had been found by a clan of people not capable of fully articulate speech, to learn the sign language they used to communicate. It was quite another to live with speaking people and not be able to talk. She remembered her early frustration because she had been unable to communicate with the people who took her in, but even worse, how difficult it had been to make Jondalar understand her before she learned to speak again. What if she had not been able to learn?

She made a sign to the boy, a simple greeting gesture, one of the first she had learned so long ago. There was a moment of excitement in his eyes, then he shook his head and looked puzzled. He had never learned the Clan way of speaking with gestures, she realized, but he must have retained some vestige of the Clan memories. He had recognized the signal for an instant, she was sure of it.

"Can Rydag touch the little horse?" Latie asked again.

"Yes," Ayla said, taking his hand. He is so slight, so frail, she thought, and then understood the rest. He could not run, like other children. He could not play normal rough-and-tumble games. He could only watch – and wish.

With a tenderness of feeling Jondalar had never seen on her face before, Ayla picked the boy up and put him on Whinney's back. Signaling the horse to follow, she walked them slowly around the Camp. There was a lull in conversation as everyone stopped to stare at Rydag sitting on the horse. Although they had been talking about it, except for Talut and the people who had met them by the river, no one had ever seen anyone ride a horse before. No one had ever thought of such a thing.

A large, motherly woman emerged from the strange dwelling, and seeing Rydag on the horse, which had kicked perilously close to her head, her first reaction was to rush to his aid. But as she neared, she became aware of the silent drama of the scene.

The child's face was filled with wonder and delight. How many times had he watched with wishful eyes, prevented by his weakness, or his difference, from doing what other children did? How many times had he wished he could do something to be admired or envied for? Now, for the first time, as he sat on the back of a horse, all the children of the Camp, and all the adults, were watching him with wishful eyes.

The woman from the dwelling saw and wondered, Had this stranger truly understood the boy so quickly? Accepted him so easily? She saw the way Ayla was looking at Rydag, and knew it was so.

Ayla saw the woman studying her, then smile at her. She smiled back and stopped beside her.

"You have made Rydag very happy," the woman said, holding out her arms to the youngster Ayla lifted off the horse.

"It is little," Ayla said.

The woman nodded. "My name is Nezzie," she said.

"I am named Ayla."

The two women looked at each other, considered each other carefully, not with hostility, but testing the ground for a future relationship.

Questions she wanted to ask about Rydag spun through Ayla's mind, but she hesitated, not sure if it was proper to ask. Was Nezzie the boy's mother? If so, how had she come to give birth to a child of mixed spirits? Ayla was puzzled again about a question that had bothered her since Durc was born. How did life begin? A woman only knew it was there when her body changed as the baby grew. How did it get inside a woman?

Creb and Iza had believed that a new life began when women swallowed the totem spirits of men. Jondalar thought the Great Earth Mother mixed the spirits of a man and a woman together and put them inside the woman when she became pregnant. But Ayla had formed her own opinion. When she noticed that her son had some of her characteristics, and some of the Clan's, she realized that no life started to grow inside her until after Broud forced his penetration into her.

She shuddered at the memory, but because it was so painful she couldn't forget it, and she had come to believe it was something about a man putting his organ inside the place where babies were born from that caused life to start inside a woman. Jondalar thought it was a strange idea when she told him, and tried to convince her it was the Mother who created life. She didn't quite believe him, now she wondered. Ayla had grown up with the Clan, she was one of them, for all that she looked different. Though she had hated it when he did it, Broud was only exercising his rights. But how could a man of the Clan have forced Nezzie?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the commotion of another small hunting band arriving. As one man approached, he pulled back his hood, and both Ayla and Jondalar gaped with surprise. The man was brown! The color of his skin was a rich deep brown. He was nearly the color of Racer, which was rare enough for a horse. Neither of them had ever seen a person with brown skin before.

His hair was black, tight wiry curls that formed a woolly cap like the fur of a black mouflon. His eyes were black, too, and they sparkled with delight as he smiled, showing gleaming white teeth and a pink tongue in contrast to his dark skin. He knew the stir he created when strangers first saw him, and rather enjoyed it.

He was a perfectly ordinary man in other respects, medium height, hardly more than an inch or so taller than Ayla, and medium build. But a compact vitality, an economy of movement, and an easy self-confidence created an impression of someone who knew what he wanted and wouldn't waste any time going after it. His eyes took on an added gleam when he saw Ayla.

Jondalar recognized the look as attraction. His brow furrowed into a frown, but neither the blond woman nor the brown-skinned man noticed. She was captivated by the novelty of the man's unusual coloring, and stared with the unabashed wonder of a child. He was attracted as much by the aura of naive innocence her response projected as by her beauty.

Suddenly Ayla realized she had been staring, and blushed crimson as she looked down at the ground. From Jondalar she had learned that it was perfectly proper for men and women to look directly at each other, but to the people of the Clan it was not only discourteous, it was offensive to stare, particularly for a woman. It was her upbringing, the customs of the Clan, reinforced again and again by Creb and Iza so she would be more acceptable, that caused her such embarrassment.

But her obvious distress only fired the interest of the dark man. He was often the object of unusual attention by women. The initial surprise of his appearance seemed to arouse curiosity about what other differences he might have. He sometimes wondered if every woman at the Summer Meetings had to find out for herself that he was, indeed, a man like every other man. Not that he objected, but Ayla's reaction was as intriguing to him as his color was to her. He wasn't used to seeing a strikingly beautiful adult woman blushing as modestly as a girl.

"Ranec, have you met our visitors?" Talut called out, coming toward them.

"Not yet, but I'm waiting… eagerly."

At the tone in his voice Ayla looked up into deep black eyes full of desire – and subtle humor. They reached inside her and touched a spot only Jondalar had touched before. Her body responded with an unexpected tingle that brought a faint gasp to her lips, and widened her gray-blue eyes. The man leaned forward, preparing to take her hands, but before customary introductions could be made, the tall stranger stepped between them, and with a deep scowl on his face, thrust both hands forward.

"I am Jondalar of the Zelandonii," he said. "The woman I am traveling with is Ayla."

Something was bothering Jondalar, Ayla was sure, something about the dark man. She was used to reading meaning from posture and stance, and she had been watching Jondalar closely for cues upon which to base her own behavior. But the body language of people who depended on words was so much less purposeful than that of the Clan, who used gestures to communicate, that she didn't trust her perceptions yet. These people seemed to be both easier and more difficult to read, as with this sudden shift in Jondalar's attitude. She knew he was angry, but she didn't know why.

The man took both of Jondalar's hands, and shook them firmly. "I am Ranec, my friend, the best, if only, carver of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi," he said with a self-deprecating smile, then added, "When you travel with such a beautiful companion, you must expect her to attract attention."

Now it was Jondalar's turn to be embarrassed. Ranec's friendliness and candor made him feel like an oaf, and, with a familiar pain, brought to mind his brother. Thonolan had had the same friendly self-confidence, and had always made the first moves when they encountered people on their Journey. It upset Jondalar when he did something foolish – it always had – and he didn't like starting out a relationship with new people in the wrong way. He had displayed bad manners, at best.

But his instant anger had surprised him, and caught him off guard. The hot stab of jealousy was a new emotion to him, or at least one he hadn't experienced in so long it was unexpected. He would have been quick to deny it, but the tall and handsome man, with an unconscious charisma, and a sensitive skill in the furs, was more accustomed to women being jealous over his attentions.

Why should it bother him that some man looked at Ayla? Jondalar thought. Ranec was right, as beautiful as she was, he should expect it. And she had the right to make her own choice. Just because he was the first man of her kind she had met didn't mean he would be the only one she would ever find attractive. Ayla saw him smile at Ranec, but noticed that the tension across his shoulders had not eased.

"Ranec always speaks lightly of it, though he isn't in the habit of denying any of his other skills," Talut was saying as he led the way to the unusual cave which seemed to be made of earth growing out of the bank. "He and Wymez are alike in that way, if not many others. Wymez is as reluctant to admit to his skill as a maker of tools as the son of his hearth is to speak of his carving. Ranec is the best carver of all the Mamutoi."

"You have a skilled toolmaker? A flint knapper?" Jondalar asked with pleased expectation, his hot flash of jealousy gone with the thought of meeting another person knowledgeable in his craft.

"Yes, and he is the best, too. The Lion Camp is well known. We have the best carver, the best toolmaker, and the oldest Mamut," the headman declared.

"And a headman big enough to make everyone agree, whether they believe it or not," Ranec said, with a wry grin.

Talut grinned back, knowing Ranec's tendency to turn aside praise of his carving skill with a quip. It didn't stop Talut from bragging, however. He was proud of his Camp, and didn't hesitate to let everyone know.

Ayla watched the subtle interaction of the two men – the older one a massive giant with flaming red hair and pale blue eyes, the other dark and compact – and understood the deep bond of affection and loyalty they shared though they were as different as any two men could be. They were both Mammoth Hunters, both members of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi.

They walked toward the archway Ayla had noticed earlier. It seemed to open into a hillock or perhaps a series of them, tucked into the slope that faced the large river. Ayla had seen people enter and leave. She knew it must be a cave or a dwelling of some kind, but one which seemed to be made entirely of dirt; hard-packed but with grass growing in patches out of it, particularly around the bottom and up the sides. It blended into the background so well that, except for the entrance, it was hard to distinguish the dwelling from its surroundings.

On closer inspection she noticed that the rounded top of the mound was the repository of several curious implements and objects. Then she saw a particular one just above the archway, and caught her breath. It was the skull of a cave lion!

2

Ayla was hiding in a tiny cleft of a sheer rock wall watching a huge cave lion's claw reach in to get her. She screamed in pain and fear when it found her bare thigh and raked it with four parallel gashes. The Spirit of the Great Cave Lion himself had chosen her, and caused her to be marked to show he was her totem, Creb had explained, after a testing far beyond that which even a man had to endure, though she had been a girl of only five years. A sensation of quivering earth beneath her feet brought a rush of nausea.

She shook her head to dispel the vivid memory.

"What's wrong, Ayla?" Jondalar asked, noticing her distress.

"I saw that skull," she said, pointing to the decoration over the door, "and remembered when I was chosen, when the Cave Lion became my totem!"

"We are the Lion Camp," Talut announced, with pride, though he had said it before. He didn't understand them when they spoke Jondalar's language, but he saw the interest they were showing in the Camp's talisman.

"The cave lion holds strong meaning for Ayla," Jondalar explained. "She says the spirit of the great cat guides and protects her."

"Then you should be comfortable here," Talut said, beaming a smile at her, feeling pleased.

She noticed Nezzie carrying Rydag and thought again of her son. "I think so," she said.

Before they started in, the young woman stopped to examine the entrance arch, and smiled when she saw how its perfect symmetry had been achieved. It was simple, but she would not have thought of it. Two large mammoth tusks, from the same animal or at least animals of the same size, had been anchored firmly in the ground with the tips facing each other and joined together at the top of the arch in a sleeve made from a hollow short section of a mammoth leg bone.

A heavy curtain of mammoth hide covered the opening, which was high enough so that even Talut, moving the drape aside, could enter without ducking his head. The arch led to a roomy entrance area, with another symmetrical arch of mammoth tusks hung with leather directly across. They stepped down into a circular foyer whose thick walls curved up to a shallow domed ceiling.

As they walked through, Ayla noticed the side walls, which seemed to be a mosaic of mammoth bones, were lined with outer clothes hung on pegs and racks with storage containers and implements. Talut pulled back the inner drape, went on through and held it back for the guests.

Ayla stepped down again. Then stopped, and stared in amazement, overwhelmed by bewildering impressions of unknown objects, unfamiliar sights, and strong colors. Much of what she saw was incomprehensible to her and she grasped at that which she could make sense of.

The space they were in had a large fireplace near the center. A massive haunch of meat was cooking over it, spitted on a long pole. Each end was resting in a groove cut in the knee joint of an upright leg bone of a mammoth calf, sunk into the ground. A fork from a large branching antler of a deer had been fashioned into a crank and a boy was turning it. He was one of the children who had stayed to watch her and Whinney. Ayla recognized him and smiled. He grinned back.

She was surprised by the spaciousness of the neat and comfortable earthlodge, as her eyes became accustomed to the dimmer light indoors. The fireplace was only the first of a row of hearths extending down the middle of the longhouse, a dwelling that was over eighty feet in length and almost twenty feet wide.

Seven fires, Ayla counted to herself, pressing her fingers against her leg inconspicuously and thinking the counting words Jondalar had taught her.

It was warm inside, she realized. The fires warmed the interior of the semisubterranean dwelling more than fires usually warmed the caves she was accustomed to. It was quite warm, in fact, and she noticed several people farther back who were very lightly clad.

But it wasn't any darker at the back. The ceiling was about the same height throughout, twelve feet or so, and had smoke holes above each fireplace that let in light as well. Mammoth bone rafters, hung with clothing, implements, and food, extended across, but the center section of the ceiling was made of many reindeer antlers entwined together.

Suddenly Ayla became aware of a smell that made her mouth water. It's mammoth meat! she thought. She hadn't tasted rich, tender mammoth meat since she left the cave of the Clan. There were other delicious cooking odors, too. Some familiar, some not, but they combined to remind her that she was hungry.

As they were led along a well-trodden passageway that ran down the middle of the longhouse next to several hearths, she noticed wide benches with furs piled on them, extending out from the walls. Some people were sitting on them, relaxing or talking. She felt them looking at her as she walked past. She saw more of the mammoth tusk archways along the sides, and wondered where they led, but she hesitated to ask.

It is like a cave, she thought, a large comfortable cave. But the arching tusks and large, long mammoth bones used as posts, supports, and walls made her realize it was not a cave that someone had found. It was one they had built!

The first area, in which the roast was cooking, was larger than the rest, and so was the fourth, where Talut led them. Several bare sleeping benches along the walls, apparently unused, showed how they were constructed.

When they had excavated the lower floor, wide platforms of dirt were left just below ground level along both sides and braced with strategically placed mammoth bones. More mammoth bones were placed across the top of the platforms, filled in with matted grass between the spaces, to raise and support pallets of soft leather stuffed with mammoth wool and other downy materials. With several layers of furs added, the dirt platforms became warm and comfortable beds or couches.

Jondalar wondered if the hearth to which they were led was unoccupied. It seemed bare, but for all its empty spaces, it had a lived-in feeling. Coals glowed in the fireplace, furs and skins were piled up on some of the benches, and dried herbs hung from racks.

"Visitors usually stay at the Mammoth Hearth," Talut explained, "if Mamut doesn't object. I will ask."

"Of course they may stay, Talut."

The voice came from an empty bench. Jondalar spun around and stared as one of the piles of furs moved. Then two eyes gleamed out of a face marked, high on the right cheek, with tattooed chevrons that fell into the seams and stitched across the wrinkles of incredible age. What he had thought was the fur of a winter animal turned out to be a white beard. Two long thin shanks unwound from a cross-legged position and dropped over the edge of the raised platform to the floor.

"Don't look so surprised, man of the Zelandonii. The woman knew I was here," the old man said in a strong voice that carried little hint of his advanced years.

"Did you, Ayla?" Jondalar asked, but she didn't seem to hear him. Ayla and the old man were locked in the grip of each other's eyes, staring as though they would see into each other's soul. Then, the young woman dropped to the ground in front of the old Mamut, crossing her legs and bowing her head.

Jondalar was puzzled, and embarrassed. She was using the sign language which she had told him the people of the Clan used to communicate. That way of sitting was the posture of deference and respect a Clan woman assumed when she was asking permission to express herself. The only other time he'd seen her in that pose was when she was trying to tell him something very important, something she could not communicate in any other way; when the words he had taught her were not enough to tell him how she felt. He wondered how something could be expressed more clearly in a language in which gestures and actions were used more than words, but he had been more surprised to know those people communicated at all.

But he wished she hadn't done that here. His face reddened at seeing her use flathead signals in public like that, and he wanted to rush to tell her to get up, before someone else saw her. The posture made him feel uncomfortable anyway, as though she were offering to him the reverence and homage that was due to Doni, the Great Earth Mother. He had thought of it as something private between them, personal, not something to show someone else. It was one thing to do that with him, when they were alone, but he wanted her to make a good impression on these people. He wanted them to like her. He didn't want them to know her background.

The Mamut leveled a sharp look at him, then turned back to Ayla. He studied her for a moment, then leaned over and tapped her shoulder.

Ayla looked up and saw wise, gentle eyes in a face striated with fine creases and soft puckers. The tattoo under his right eye gave her a fleeting impression of a darkened eye socket and missing eye, and for a heartbeat she thought it was Creb. But the old holy man of the Clan who, with Iza, had raised her and cared for her, was dead, and so was Iza. Then who was this man that had evoked such strong feelings in her? Why was she sitting at his feet like a woman of the Clan? And how had he known the proper Clan response?

"Get up, my dear. We will talk later," the Mamut said. "You need time to rest and eat. These are beds – sleeping places," he explained, indicating the benches, as though he knew she might need to be told. "There are extra furs and bedding over there."

Ayla rose gracefully to her feet. The observant old man saw years of practice in the movement, and added that bit of information to his growing knowledge of the woman. In their short meeting, he already knew more about Ayla and Jondalar than anyone else in the Camp. But then he had an advantage. He knew more about where Ayla came from than anyone else in the Camp.

The mammoth roast had been carried outside on a large pelvic bone platter along with various roots, vegetables, and fruits to enjoy the meal in the late afternoon sun. Mammoth meat was just as rich and tender as Ayla remembered, but she'd had a difficult moment when the meal was served. She didn't know the protocol. On certain occasions, usually more formal ones, the women of the Clan ate separately from the men. Usually, though, they sat in family groups together, but even then, the men were served first.

Ayla didn't know that the Mamutoi honored guests by offering them the first and choicest piece, or that custom dictated, in deference to the Mother, that a woman take the first bite. Ayla hung back when the food was brought out, keeping behind Jondalar, trying to watch the others unobtrusively. There was a moment of confused shuffling while everyone stood back waiting for her to start, and she kept trying to get behind them.

Some members of the Camp became aware of the action, and with mischievous grins began to make a game of it. But it didn't seem funny to Ayla. She knew she was doing something wrong, and watching Jondalar didn't help. He was trying to urge her forward, too.

Mamut came to her aid. He took her arm and led her to the bone platter of thick-sliced mammoth roast. "You are expected to eat first, Ayla," he said.

"But I am a woman!" she protested.

"That is why you are expected to eat first. It is our offering to the Mother, and it is better if a woman accepts it in Her place. Take the best piece, not for your sake, but to honor Mut," the old man explained.

She looked at him, first with surprise, and then with gratitude. She picked up a plate, a slightly curved piece of ivory flaked off a tusk, and with great seriousness carefully chose the best slice. Jondalar smiled at her, nodding approval, then others crowded forward to serve themselves. When she was through, Ayla put the plate on the ground where she had seen others put theirs.

"I wondered if you were showing us a new dance earlier," said a voice from close behind her.

Ayla turned to see the dark eyes of the man with brown skin. She didn't understand the word "dance," but his wide smile was friendly. She smiled back.

"Did anyone ever tell you how beautiful you are when you smile?" he said.

"Beautiful? Me?" She laughed and shook her head in disbelief.

Jondalar had said almost the same words to her once, but Ayla did not think of herself that way. Since long before she reached womanhood, she had been thinner and taller than the people who had raised her. She'd looked so different, with her bulging forehead and the funny bone beneath her mouth that Jondalar said was a chin, she always thought of herself as big and ugly.

Ranec watched her, intrigued. She laughed with childlike abandon, as though she genuinely thought he'd said something funny. It was not the response he expected. A coy smile, perhaps, or a knowing, laughing invitation, but Ayla's gray-blue eyes held no guile, and there was nothing coy or self-conscious about the way she tossed her head back or pushed her long hair out of her way.

Rather, she moved with the natural fluid grace of an animal, a horse perhaps, or a lion. She had an aura about her, a quality that he couldn't quite define, but it had elements of complete candor and honesty, and yet some deep mystery. She seemed innocent, like a baby, open to everything, but she was every bit a woman, a tall, stunning, uncompromisingly beautiful woman.

He looked her over with interest and curiosity. Her hair, thick and long with a natural wave, was a lustrous deep gold, like a field of hay blowing in the wind; her eyes were large and wide-spaced and framed with lashes a shade darker than her hair. With a sculptor's knowing sense he examined the clean, elegant structure of her face, the muscled grace of her body, and when his eyes reached her full breasts and inviting hips, they took on a look that disconcerted her.

She flushed and looked away. Though Jondalar had told her it was proper, she wasn't sure if she liked this looking straight at someone. It made her feel defenseless, vulnerable. Jondalar's back was turned to her when she looked in his direction, but his stance told her more than words. He was angry. Why was he angry? Had she done anything to make him angry?

"Talut! Ranec! Barzec! Look who's here!" a voice called out.

Everyone turned to look. Several people were coming over the rise at the top of the slope. Nezzie and Talut both started up the hill as a young man broke away and ran toward them. They met midway and embraced enthusiastically. Ranec rushed to meet one of those approaching, too, and though the greeting was more restrained, it was still with warm affection that he hugged an older man.

Ayla watched with a strangely empty feeling as the rest of the people of the Camp deserted the visitors in their eagerness to greet returning relatives and friends, all talking and laughing at the same time. She was Ayla of No People. She had no place to go, no home to return to, no clan to welcome her with hugs and kisses. Iza and Creb, who had loved her, were dead, and she was dead to the ones she loved.

Uba, Iza's daughter, had been as much a sister as anyone could be; they were related by love if not by blood. But Uba would shut her heart and her mind to her if she saw Ayla now; would refuse to believe her eyes; would not believe her eyes; would not see her. Broud had cursed her with death. She was, therefore, dead.

And would Durc even remember her? She'd had to leave him with Brun's clan. Even if she could have stolen him away, there would have been just the two of them. If something had happened to her, he would have been left alone. It was best to leave him with the clan. Uba loved him and would take care of him. Everyone loved him – except Broud. Brun would protect him, though, and would teach him to hunt. And he would grow up strong and brave, and be as good with a sling as she was, and be a fast runner, and.

Suddenly she noticed one member of the Camp who had not run up the slope. Rydag was standing by the earthlodge, one hand on a tusk, gazing round-eyed at the band of happy laughing people walking back down. She saw them, then, through his eyes, arms around each other, holding children, while other children jumped up and down begging to be held. He was breathing too hard, she thought, feeling too much excitement.

She started toward him, and saw Jondalar moving in the same direction. "I was going to take him up there," he said. He had noticed the child, too, and they'd both had the same thought.

"Yes, do it," she said. "Whinney and Racer may get nervous again around all the new people. I'll go and stay with them."

Ayla watched Jondalar pick up the dark-haired child, put him on his shoulders, and stride up the slope toward the people of the Lion Camp. The young man, nearly Jondalar's match in height, whom Talut and Nezzie had welcomed so warmly, held out his arms to the youngster and greeted him with obvious delight, then lifted Rydag to his shoulders for the walk back down to the lodge. He is loved, she thought, and remembered that she, too, had been loved, in spite of her difference.

Jondalar saw her watching them and smiled at her. She felt such a warm rush of feeling for the caring, sensitive man, she was embarrassed to think she had been feeling so sorry for herself only moments before. She wasn't alone any more. She had Jondalar. She loved the sound of his name, and her thoughts filled with him and her feeling for him.

Jondalar. The first one of the Others she had ever seen, that she could remember; the first with a face like hers, blue eyes like hers – only more so; his eyes were so blue it was hard to believe they were real.

Jondalar. The first man she'd ever met who was taller than she; the first one who ever laughed with her, and the first to cry tears of grief – for the brother he had lost.

Jondalar. The man who had been brought as a gift from her totem, she was sure, to the valley where she had settled after she left the Clan when she grew weary of searching for the Others like herself.

Jondalar. The man who had taught her to speak again, with words, not just the sign language of the Clan. Jondalar, whose sensitive hands could shape a tool, or scratch a young horse, or pick up a child and put him on his back. Jondalar, who taught her the joys of her body – and his – and who loved her, and whom she loved more than she ever thought it was possible to love anyone.

She walked toward the river and around a bend, where Racer was tied to a stunted tree by a long rope. She wiped wet eyes with the back of her hand, overcome with the emotion that was still so new to her. She reached for her amulet, a small leather pouch attached to a thong around her neck. She felt the lumpy objects it contained, and made a thought to her totem.

"Spirit of the Great Cave Lion, Creb always said a powerful totem was hard to live with. He was right. Always the testing has been difficult, but always it has been worth it. This woman is grateful for the protection, and for the gifts of her powerful totem. The gifts inside, of things learned, and the gifts of these to care about like Whinney and Racer, and Baby, and most of all, for Jondalar."

Whinney came to her when she reached the colt and blew a soft greeting. She laid her head on the mare's neck. The woman felt tired, drained. She wasn't used to so many people, so much going on, and people who spoke a language were so noisy. She had a headache, her temples were pounding, and her neck and shoulders hurt. Whinney was leaning on her and Racer, joining them, added pressure from his side, until she was feeling squeezed between them, but she didn't mind.

"Enough!" she said, finally, slapping the colt's flank. "You're getting too big, Racer, to get me in the middle like that. Look at you! Look how big you are. You're almost as big as your dam!" She scratched him, then rubbed and patted Whinney, noticing dried sweat. "It's hard for you, too, isn't it? I'll give you a good rubdown and brush you with a teasel later, but people are coming now so you're probably going to get more attention. It won't be so bad once they get used to you."

Ayla didn't notice that she had slipped into the private language she had developed during her years alone with only animals for company. It was composed partly of Clan gestures, partly of verbalizations of some of the few words the Clan spoke, imitations of animals, and the nonsense words she and her son had begun to use. To anyone else, it was likely the hand signals would not have been noticed, and she would have seemed to be murmuring a most peculiar set of sounds: grunts and growls and repetitive syllables. It might not have been thought of as a language.

"Maybe Jondalar will brush Racer, too." Suddenly she stopped as a troubling thought occurred to her. She reached for her amulet again and tried to frame her thoughts. "Great Cave Lion, Jondalar is now your chosen, too, he bears the scars on his leg of your marking, just as I do." She shifted her thoughts into the ancient silent language spoken only with hands; the proper language for addressing the spirit world.

"Spirit of the Great Cave Lion, that man who has been chosen has not a knowledge of totems. That man knows not of testing, knows not the trials of a powerful totem, or the gifts and the learning. Even this woman who knows has found them difficult. This woman would beg the Spirit of the Cave Lion… would beg for that man."

Ayla stopped. She wasn't sure what she was asking for. She didn't want to ask the spirit not to test Jondalar – she did not want him to forfeit the benefits such trials would most assuredly bring – and not even to go easy on him. Since she had suffered great ordeals and gained unique skills and insights, she had come to believe benefits came in proportion to the severity of the test. She gathered her thoughts and continued.

"This woman would beg the Spirit of the Great Cave Lion to help that man who has been chosen to know the value of his powerful totem, to know that no matter how difficult it may seem, the testing is necessary." She finally finished and let her hands drop.

"Ayla?"

She turned around and saw Latie. "Yes."

"You seemed to be… busy. I didn't want to interrupt you."

"I am through."

"Talut would like you to come and bring the horses. He has already told everyone they should do nothing that you don't say. Not to frighten them or make them nervous… I think he made some people nervous."

"I will come," Ayla said, then she smiled. "You like ride horse back?" she asked.

Latie's face split into a wide grin. "Could I? Really?" When she smiled like that, she resembled Talut, Ayla thought.

"Maybe people not be nervous when see you on Whinney. Come. Here is rock. Help you get on."

As Ayla came back around the bend, followed by a full-grown mare with the girl on her back, and a frisky colt behind, all conversation stopped. Those who had seen it before, though still awed themselves, were enjoying the expressions of stunned disbelief on the faces of those who hadn't.

"See, Tulie. I told you!" Talut said to a dark-haired woman who resembled him in size, if not in coloring. She towered over Barzec, the man from the last hearth, who stood beside her with his arm around her waist. Near them were the two boys of that hearth, thirteen and eight years, and their sister of six, whom Ayla had recently met.

When they reached the earthlodge, Ayla lifted Latie down, then stroked and patted Whinney, whose nostrils were flaring as she picked up the scent of unfamiliar people again. The girl ran to a gangly, red-haired young man of, perhaps, fourteen years, nearly as tall as Talut and, except for age and a body not yet as filled out, almost identical.

"Come and meet Ayla," Latie said, pulling him toward the woman with the horses. He allowed himself to be pulled. Jondalar had strolled over to keep Racer settled down.

"This is my brother, Danug," Latie explained. "He's been gone a long time, but he's going to stay home now that he knows all about mining flint. Aren't you, Danug?"

"I don't know all about it, Latie," he said, a bit embarrassed.

Ayla smiled. "I greet you," she said, holding out her hands.

It made him even more embarrassed. He was the son of the Lion Hearth, he should have greeted the visitor first, but he was overwhelmed by the beautiful stranger who had such power over animals. He took her proffered hands and mumbled a greeting. Whinney chose that moment to snort and prance away, and he quickly let her hands go, feeling, for some reason, that the horse disapproved.

"Whinney would learn to know you faster if you patted her and let her get your scent," Jondalar said, sensing the young man's discomfort. It was a difficult age; no longer child but not quite man. "Have you been learning the craft of mining flint?" he asked conversationally, trying to put the boy at ease as he showed him how to stroke the horse.

"I am a worker of flint. Wymez has been teaching me since I was young," the young man said with pride. "He's the best, but he wanted me to learn some other techniques, and how to judge the raw stone." With the conversation turned to more familiar topics, Danug's natural enthusiasm surfaced.

Jondalar's eyes lit up with sincere interest. "I, too, am a worker of flint, and learned my craft from a man who is the best. When I was about your age, I lived with him near the flint mine he found. I'd like to meet your teacher sometime."

"Then let me introduce you, since I am the son of his hearth – and the first, though not the only, user of his tools."

Jondalar turned at the sound of Ranec's voice, and noticed the whole Camp was circled around. Standing beside the man with brown skin was the man he had greeted so warmly. Though they were the same height, Jondalar could see no further resemblance. The older man's hair was straight and light brown shot with gray, his eyes were an ordinary blue, and there was no similarity between his and Ranec's distinctly exotic features. The Mother must have chosen the spirit of another man for the child of his hearth, Jondalar thought, but why did She select one of such unusual coloring?

"Wymez, of the Fox Hearth of the Lion Camp, Flint Master of the Mamutoi," Ranec said with exaggerated formality, "meet our visitors, Jondalar of the Zelandonii, another of your ilk, it would seem." Jondalar felt an undercurrent of… he wasn't sure. Humor? Sarcasm? Something. "And, his beautiful companion, Ayla, a woman of No People, but great charm – and mystery." His smile drew Ayla's eyes, with the contrast between white teeth and dark skin, and his dark eyes sparkled with a knowing look.

"Greetings," Wymez said, as simple and direct as Ranec had been elaborate. "You work the stone?"

"Yes, I'm a flint knapper," Jondalar replied.

"I have some excellent stone with me. It's fresh from the source, hasn't dried out at all."

"I've got a hammerstone, and a good punch in my pack," Jondalar said, immediately interested. "Do you use a punch?"

Ranec gave Ayla a pained look as their conversation quickly turned to their mutual skill. "I could have told you this would happen," he said. "Do you know what the worst part of living at the hearth of a master toolmaker is? It's not always having stone chips in your furs, it's always having stone talk in your ears. And after Danug showed an interest…stone, stone, stone…that's all I heard." Ranec's warm smile belied his complaint, and everyone had obviously heard it before, since no one paid much attention, except Danug.

"I didn't know it bothered you so much," the young man said.

"It didn't," Wymez said to the youngster. "Can't you tell when Ranec is trying to impress a pretty woman?"

"Actually, I'm grateful to you, Danug. Until you came along, I think he was hoping to turn me into a flint worker," Ranec said to relieve Danug's concern.

"Not after I realized your only interest in my tools was to carve ivory with them, and that wasn't long after we got here," Wymez said, then he smiled and added, "And if you think chips of flint in your bed are bad, you ought to try ivory dust in your food."

The two dissimilar men were smiling at each other, and Ayla realized with relief that they were joking, teasing each other verbally, in a friendly way. She also noticed that for all their difference in color and Ranec's exotic features, their smile was similar, and their bodies moved the same way.

Suddenly shouting could be heard coming from inside the longhouse. "Keep out of it, old woman! This is between Fralie and me." It was a man's voice, the man of the sixth hearth, next to the last one. Ayla recalled meeting him.

"I don't know why she chose you, Frebec! I should never have allowed it!" a woman screeched back at the man. Suddenly an older woman burst out through the archway, dragging a crying young woman with her. Two bewildered boys followed, one about seven, the other a toddler of two with a bare bottom and a thumb in his mouth.

"It's all your fault. She listens to you too much. Why don't you stop interfering?"

Everyone turned away – they had heard it all before, too many times. But Ayla stared in amazement. No woman of the Clan would have argued with any man like that.

"Frebec and Crozie are at it again, don't mind them," said Tronie. She was the woman from the fifth hearth – the Reindeer Hearth, Ayla recalled. It was the next after the Mammoth Hearth, where she and Jondalar were staying. The woman was holding a baby boy to her breast.

Ayla had met the young mother from the neighboring hearth earlier and was drawn to her. Tornec, her mate, picked up the three-year-old who was clinging to her mother, still not accepting of the new baby who had usurped her place at her mother's breast. They were a warm and loving young couple, and Ayla was glad they were the ones who lived at the next hearth rather than the ones who squabbled. Manuv, who lived with them, had co… me to talk to her while they were eating, and told her that he had been the man of the hearth when Tornec was young, and was the son of a cousin of Mamut. He said he often spent time at the fourth hearth, which pleased her. She always did have a special fondness for older people.

She wasn't as comfortable with the neighboring hearth on the other side, the third one. Ranec lived there – he had called it the Fox Hearth. She did not dislike him, but Jondalar acted so strangely around him. It was a smaller hearth, though, with only two men and took less space in the longhouse so she felt closer to Nezzie and Talut, at the second hearth, and to Rydag. She liked the other children of Talut's Lion Hearth, too, Latie and Rugie, Nezzie's younger daughter, close in age to Rydag. Now that she'd met Danug, she liked him, too.

Talut approached with the big woman. Barzec and the children were with them and Ayla assumed they were mated.

"Ayla, I would like you to meet my sister, Tulie of the Aurochs Hearth, headwoman of the Lion Camp."

"Greetings," the woman said, holding out both hands in the formal way. "In Mut's name, I welcome you." As sister to the headman she was his equal, and conscious of her responsibilities.

"I greet you, Tulie," Ayla replied, trying not to stare.

The first time Jondalar was able to stand, it had been a shock to discover that he was taller than she was, but to see a woman who was taller was even more surprising. Ayla had always towered over everyone in the Clan. But the headwoman was more than tall, she was muscular and powerful-looking. The only one who exceeded her in size was her brother. She carried herself with the presence that only sheer height and mass can convey, and the undeniable self-assurance of a woman, mother, and leader completely confident and in control of her life.

Tulie wondered about the visitor's strange accent, but another problem concerned her more, and with the directness typical of her people, she did not hesitate to bring it up.

"I didn't know the Mammoth Hearth would be occupied when I invited Branag to return with us. He and Deegie will be joined this summer. He will only stay a few days, and I know she had hoped they could spend those days off by themselves a little, away from her brothers and sister. Since you are a guest, she would not ask, but Deegie would like to stay at the Mammoth Hearth with Branag, if you do not object."

"Is large hearth. Many beds. I do not object," Ayla said, feeling uncomfortable to be asked. It wasn't her home.

As they were talking, a young woman came out of the earthlodge, followed by a young man. Ayla looked twice. She was close to Ayla's age, stocky and a fraction taller! She had deep chestnut hair and a friendly face that many would have said was pretty, and it was evident that the young man with her thought she was quite attractive. But Ayla wasn't paying much attention to her physical appearance, she was staring with awe at the young woman's clothing.

She was dressed in leggings, and a tunic of leather of a color that almost matched her hair – a long, profusely decorated, dark ochre red tunic that opened in front, belted to hold it closed. Red was a color sacred to the Clan. Iza's pouch was the only object Ayla owned that had been dyed red. It held the special roots used to make the drink for the special ceremonies. She still had it, carefully tucked away in her medicine bag in which she carried various dried herbs used in the healing magic. A whole tunic made of red leather? It was hard to believe.

"It is so beautiful!" Ayla said, even before she could be properly introduced.

"Do you like it? It's for my Matrimonial, when we are joined. Branag's mother gave it to me, and I just had to put it on to show everyone."

"I not ever see anything like it!" Ayla said, her eyes open wide.

The young woman was delighted. "You're the one called Ayla, aren't you? My name is Deegie, and this is Branag. He has to go back in a few days," she said, looking disappointed, "but after next summer we'll be together'. We're going to move in with my brother, Tarneg. He's living with his woman and her family now, but he wants to set up a new Camp and he's been after me to take a mate so he'll have a headwoman."

Ayla saw Tulie smiling and nodding at her daughter and remembered the request. "Hearth have much room, many empty beds, Deegie. You stay at Mammoth Hearth with Branag? He is visitor, too… if Mamut not mind. Is hearth of Mamut."

"His first woman was the mother of my grandmother. I've slept at his hearth many times. Mamut won't mind, will you?" Deegie asked, seeing him.

"Of course, you and Branag can stay, Deegie," the old man said, "but remember, you may not get much sleep." Deegie smiled with expectation as Mamut continued, "With visitors, Danug returning after being away for a whole year, your Matrimonial, and Wymez's success on his trading mission, I think there is reason to gather at the Mammoth Hearth tonight and tell the stories."

Everyone smiled. They expected the announcement, but that didn't diminish their anticipation. They knew that a gathering at the Mammoth Hearth meant recounting of experiences, storytelling, and perhaps other entertainment, and they looked forward to the evening with enjoyment. They were eager to hear news of other Camps, and to listen again to stories they knew. And they were as interested in seeing the reactions of the strangers to the lives and adventures of members of their own Camp as to hearing the stories they had to share.

Jondalar also knew what such a gathering meant, and it bothered him. Would Ayla tell much of her story? Would the Lion Camp be as welcoming afterward? He thought about taking her aside to caution her, but he knew it would just make her angry and upset. In many ways she was like the Mamutoi, direct and honest in the expression of her feelings. It wouldn't do any good anyway. She didn't know how to lie. At best, she might refrain from speaking.

3

Ayla spent time in the afternoon rubbing down and currying Whinney with a soft piece of leather and the dried spiny head of a teasel. It was as relaxing for her as it was for the horse.

Jondalar worked companionably beside her using a teasel on Racer to soothe his itchy places while he smoothed the colt's shaggy winter coat, though the young animal wanted to play more than stand still. Racer's warm and soft inner layer had grown in much thicker, reminding the man how soon the cold would be upon them, which set him to thinking about where they would spend the winter. He still wasn't sure how Ayla felt about the Mamutoi, but at least the horses and the people of the Camp were getting used to each other.

Ayla noticed the easing of tensions, too, but she was worried about where the horses would spend the night when she was inside the earthlodge. They were used to sharing a cave with her. Jondalar kept assuring her they would be fine, horses were used to being outside. She finally decided to tether Racer near the entrance, knowing Whinney wouldn't wander far afield without her colt, and that the mare would wake her if any danger presented itself.

The wind turned cold as darkness fell, and there was a breath of snow in the air when Ayla and Jondalar went in, but the Mammoth Hearth in the middle of the semisubterranean dwelling was snug and warm as people gathered. Many had stopped to pick at cold leftovers from the earlier meal which had been brought in: small white starchy groundnuts, wild carrots, blueberries, and slices of mammoth roast. They picked up the vegetables and fruit with fingers or a pair of sticks used as tongs, but Ayla noticed that each person, except for the youngest children, had an eating knife for the meat. It intrigued her to watch someone take hold of a large slice with the teeth, then cut off a small bite with an upward flick of the knife – without losing a nose.

Small brown waterbags – the preserved waterproof bladders and stomachs of various animals – were passed around and people drank from them with great relish. Talut offered her a drink. It smelled fermented and somewhat unpleasant, and filled her mouth with a slightly sweet but strong burning taste, she declined a second offer. She didn't like it, though Jondalar seemed to enjoy it.

People were talking and laughing as they found places on platforms or on furs or mats on the floor. Ayla's head was turned, listening to a conversation, when the level of noise dropped off noticeably. She turned around and saw the old Mamut standing quietly behind the fireplace in which a small fire burned. When all conversation ceased, and he had everyone's attention, he picked up a small unlit torch and held it to the hot flames until it caught. In the expectant hush of held breaths he brought the flame to a small stone lamp that was in a niche in the wall behind him. The dried lichen wick sputtered in the mammoth fat, then flared up, revealing a small ivory carving of an ample, well-endowed woman behind the lamp.

Ayla felt a prickle of recognition, though she had never seen one like it before. That's what Jondalar calls a donii, she thought. He says it holds the Spirit of the Great Earth Mother. Or a part of it, maybe. It seems too small to hold all of it. But then how big is a spirit?

Her mind wandered back to another ceremony, the time when she was given the black stone which she carried in the amulet bag around her neck. The small lump of black manganese dioxide held a piece of the spirit of everyone in the entire Clan, not just her clan. The stone had been given to her when she was made a medicine woman, and she had given up a part of her own spirit in exchange, so that if she saved someone's life, that person incurred no obligation to give her something of like kind and value in return. It had already been done.

It still bothered her when she recalled that the spirits had not been returned after she was death-cursed. Creb had taken them back from Iza, after the old medicine woman died, so they would not go with her to the spirit world, but no one had taken them from Ayla. If she had a piece of the spirit of every member of the Clan, had Broud caused them to be cursed with death, too?

Am I dead? she wondered, as she had wondered many times before. She didn't think so. She had learned that the power of the death curse was in the believing, and that when loved ones no longer acknowledged your existence, and you had no place to go, you might as well die. But why hadn't she died? What had kept her from giving up? And more important, what would happen to the Clan when she really did die? Might her death cause harm to those she loved? Perhaps to all the Clan? The small leather pouch felt heavy with the weight of the responsibility, as though the fate of the entire Clan hung around her neck.

Ayla was brought out of her musing by a rhythmic sound. With a hammer-shaped section of an antler, Mamut was beating on the skull of a mammoth, painted with geometric lines and symbols. Ayla thought she detected a quality beyond rhythm and she watched and listened carefully. The hollow cavity intensified the sound with rich vibrations, but it was more than the simple resonance of the instrument. When the old shaman played on the different areas marked on the bone drum, the pitch and tone changed with such complex and subtle variations it seemed as though Mamut was drawing speech from the drum, making the old mammoth skull talk.

Low and deep in his chest, the old man began intoning a chant in closely modulated minor tones. As drum and voice interwove an intricate pattern of sound, other voices joined in from here and there around the room, fitting into the established mode, yet varying it independently. The drum rhythm was picked up by a similar sound across the room. Ayla looked over and saw Deegie playing another skull drum. Then Tornec began tapping with an antler hammer on another mammoth bone, a shoulder bone covered with evenly spaced lines and chevrons painted in red. The deep tonal resonances of the skull drums, and the higher-pitched tones of the scapula, filled the earthlodge with a beautiful haunting sound. Ayla's body pulsed with movement and she noticed others moving their bodies in time to the sound. Suddenly it stopped.

The silence was filled with expectancy, but it was left to fade away. No formal ceremony was planned, only an informal gathering of the Camp to spend a pleasant evening in one another's company, doing what people do best – talking.

Tulie began by announcing that agreement had been reached, and the nuptials of Deegie and Branag would be formalized the next summer. Words of approval and congratulations were spoken out, though everyone expected it. The young couple beamed their pleasure. Then Talut asked Wymez to tell them about his trading mission, and they learned that it involved exchanges of salt, amber, and flint. Several people asked questions or made comments while Jondalar listened with interest, but Ayla did not comprehend and resolved to ask him later. Following that, Talut asked about Danug's progress, to the young man's discomfiture.

"He has talent, a deft touch. A few more years of experience, and he'll be very good. They were sorry to see him leave. He's learned well, it was worth the year away," Wymez reported. More words of approval were spoken out by the group. Then there was a lull filled with small private conversations before Talut turned to Jondalar, which caused rustlings of excitement.

"Tell us, man of the Zelandonii, how do you come to be sitting in the lodge of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi?" he asked.

Jondalar took a swallow from one of the small brown waterbags of fermented drink, looked around at the people waiting expectantly, then smiled at Ayla. He's done this before! she thought, a little surprised, understanding that he was setting the pace and the tone to tell his story. She settled down to listen as well.

"It is a long story," he began. People were nodding. That's what they wanted to hear. "My people live a long way from here, far, far to the west, even beyond the source of the Great Mother River that empties into Beran Sea. We live near a river, too, as you do, but our river flows into the Great Waters of the west.

"The Zelandonii are a great people. Like you, we are Earth's Children; the one you call Mut, we call Doni, but She is still the Great Earth Mother. We hunt and trade, and sometimes make long Journeys. My brother and I decided to make such a Journey." For a moment, Jondalar closed his eyes and his forehead knotted with pain. "Thonolan… my brother… was full of laughter and loved adventure. He was a favorite of the Mother."

The pain was too real. Everyone knew it was not an affectation for the sake of the story. Even without his saying so, they guessed the cause. They also had a saying about the Mother taking the ones she favored early. Jondalar hadn't planned to show his feelings like that. The grief caught him by surprise and left him somewhat embarrassed. But such loss is universally understood. His unintended demonstration drew their sympathy and caused them to feel for him a warmth that went beyond the normal curiosity and courtesy they usually extended to non-threatening strangers.

He took a deep breath and tried to pick up the thread of his tale. "The Journey was Thonolan's in the beginning. I planned to accompany him only a short way, only as far as the home of some relatives, but then I decided to go with him. We crossed over a small glacier, which is the source of Donau – the Great Mother River – and said we would follow her to the end. No one believed we would do it, I'm not sure if we did, but we kept going, crossing many tributaries and meeting many people.

"Once, during the first summer, we stopped to hunt, and while we were drying the meat, we found ourselves surrounded by men pointing spears at us…"

Jondalar had found his stride again, and held the camp enthralled as he recounted his adventures. He was a good storyteller, with a flair for drawing out the suspense. There were nods and murmurs of approval and words of encouragement, often shouts of excitement. Even when they listen, people who speak with words are not silent, Ayla thought.

She was as fascinated as the rest, but found herself for a moment watching the people who were listening to him. Adults held young children in their laps while the Older children sat together watching the charismatic stranger with glistening eyes. Danug, in particular, seemed captured. He was leaning forward, in rapt attention.

"Thonolan went into the canyon, thinking he was safe with the lioness gone. Then we heard the roar of a lion…"

"What happened then?" Danug asked.

"Ayla will have to tell you the rest. I don't remember much after that."

All eyes turned toward her. Ayla was stunned. She didn't expect it; she had never spoken to a crowd of people before. Jondalar was smiling at her. He'd had the sudden thought that the best way to get her used to talking to people was to make her do it. It wouldn't be the last time she'd be expected to recount some experience, and with her control over the horses still fresh in everyone's mind, the story of the lion would be more believable. It was an exciting story, he knew, and one that would add to her mystery – and perhaps, if she satisfied them with this story, she wouldn't have to bring up her background.

"What happened, Ayla?" Danug said, still caught up in the tale. Rugie had been feeling shy and reticent around her big brother who had been gone for so long, but remembering former times when they sat around telling stories, she decided at that moment to climb into his lap. He welcomed her with an absentminded smile and hug, but looked at Ayla expectantly.

Ayla looked around at all the faces turned toward her, tried to speak, but her mouth was dry, though her palms were sweaty.

"Yes, what happened?" Latie repeated. She was sitting near Danug, with Rydag in her lap.

The boy's big brown eyes were filled with excitement. He opened his mouth to ask, too, but no one understood the sound he made – except Ayla. Not the word itself, but its intent. She had heard similar sounds before, had even learned to speak them. The people of the Clan were not mute, but they were limited in their ability to articulate. They had instead evolved a rich and comprehensive sign language to communicate, and used words only for emphasis. She knew the child was asking her to continue the story, and that to him the words had that meaning. Ayla smiled, and directed her words to him.

"I was with Whinney," Ayla began. Her way of saying the mare's name had always been an imitation of the soft nicker of a horse. The people in the lodge didn't realize she was saying the animal's name. Instead, they thought it was a wonderful embellishment to the story. They smiled, and spoke words of approval, encouraging her to continue in the same vein.

"She soon have small horse. Very big," Ayla said, holding her hands out in front of her stomach to indicate that the horse was very pregnant. There were smiles of understanding. "Every day we ride, Whinney need go out. Not far, not west. Always go east, easy to go east. Too easy, nothing new. One day, we go west, not east. See new place," Ayla continued, directing her words to Rydag.

Jondalar had been teaching her Mamutoi, as well as the other languages he knew, but she wasn't as fluent as she was in his language, the one she'd first learned to speak. Her manner of speaking was odd, different in a way that was hard to explain, and she struggled to find words, feeling shy about it. But when she thought of the boy who couldn't make himself understood at all, she had to try. Because he had asked.

"I hear lion." She wasn't sure why she did it. Perhaps it was the expectant look on Rydag's face, or the way he turned his head to hear, or an instinct for it, but she followed the word "lion" with a menacing growl, that sounded for all the world like a real lion. She heard little gasps of fear, then nervous chuckles, then smiling words of approval from the assembled group. Her ability to mimic the sounds of animals was uncanny. It added unexpected excitement to her story. Jondalar was nodding and smiling his approval, too.

"I hear man scream." She looked at Jondalar and her eyes filled with sorrow. "I stop, what to do? Whinney is big with baby." She made the little squealing sounds of a foal, and was rewarded with a beaming smile from Latie. "I worry for horse, but man scream. I hear lion again. I listen." She managed, somehow, to make a lion's roar sound playful. "It is Baby. I go in canyon then, I know horse not be hurt."

Ayla saw puzzled looks. The word she spoke was unfamiliar, although Rydag might have known it if his circumstances had been different. She had told Jondalar it was the Clan word for infant.

"Baby is lion," she said, trying to explain. "Baby is lion I know, Baby is… like son. I go in canyon, make lion go away. I find one man dead. Other man, Jondalar, hurt very bad. Whinney take back to valley."

"Ha!" a voice said derisively. Ayla looked up and saw that it was Frebec, the man who had been arguing with the old woman earlier. "Are you trying to tell me you told a lion to go away from a wounded man?"

"Not any lion. Baby," Ayla said.

"What is that… whatever you are saying?"

"Baby is Clan word. Mean child, infant. Name I give lion when he live with me. Baby is lion I know. Horse know, too. Not afraid." Ayla was upset, something was wrong, but she wasn't sure what.

"You lived with a lion? I don't believe that," he sneered.

"You don't believe it?" Jondalar said, sounding angry. The man was accusing Ayla of lying, and he knew only too well how true her story was. "Ayla does not lie," he said, standing up to untie the thong that was gathered around the waist of his leather trousers. He dropped down one side of them and exposed a groin and thigh disfigured with angry red scars. "That lion attacked me, and Ayla not only got me away from him, she is a Healer of great skill. I would have followed my brother to the next world without her. I will tell you something else. I saw her ride the back of that lion, just as she rides the horse. Will you call me a liar?"

"No guest of the Lion Camp is called a liar," Tulie said, glaring at Frebec, trying to calm a potentially ugly scene. "I think it is evident that you were badly mauled, and we have certainly seen the woman… Ayla… ride the horse. I see no reason to doubt you, or her."

There was a strained silence. Ayla was looking from one to the other, confused. The word "liar" was unfamiliar to her, and she did not understand why Frebec said he didn't believe her. Ayla had grown up among people who communicated with movement. More than hand signs, the Clan language included posture and expressions to shade meanings and give nuances. It was impossible to lie effectively with the entire body. At best, one could refrain from mentioning and even that was known, though allowed for the sake of privacy. Ayla had never learned to lie.

But she did know something was wrong. She could read the anger and hostility that had sprung up as easily as if they'd shouted it. She also knew they were trying to refrain from mentioning it. Talut saw Ayla look at the dark-skinned man, then look away. Seeing Ranec gave him an idea of a way to ease tensions and get back to storytelling.

"That was a good story, Jondalar," Talut boomed, giving Frebec a hard look. "Long Journeys are always exciting to hear about. Would you like to hear a story of another long Journey?"

"Yes, very much."

There were smiles all around as people relaxed. It was a favorite story of the group, and not often was there an opportunity to share it with people who hadn't heard it before.

"It's Ranec's story…" Talut began.

Ayla looked at Ranec expectantly. "I would know how man with brown skin comes to live at Lion Camp," she said.

Ranec smiled at her, but turned to the man of his hearth. "It's my story, but yours to tell, Wymez," he said.

Jondalar was seated again, not at all sure he liked the turn the conversation had taken – or perhaps Ayla's interest in Ranec – though it was better than the near-open hostility, and he was interested, too.

Wymez settled back, nodded to Ayla, then, smiling at Jondalar, he began. "We have more in common than a feel for the stone, young man. I, too, made a long Journey in my youth. I traveled south toward the east first, past Beran Sea, all the way to the shores of a much larger sea farther south. This Southern Sea has many names, for many people live along its shores. I traveled around its eastern end then west along the south shore through lands of many forests, much warmer, and rainier, than here.

"I won't try to tell you all that happened to me. I will save that for another time. I will tell you Ranec's story. As I traveled west, I met many people and stayed with some of them, and learned new ways, but then I would get restless and travel again. I wanted to see how far west I could go.

"After several years I came to a place, not far from your Great Waters, I think, Jondalar, but across the narrow straits where the Southern Sea joins it. There, I met some people whose skin was so dark it seemed black, and there I met a woman. A woman I was drawn to. Perhaps at first it was her difference… her exotic clothes, her color, her dark flashing eyes. Her smile compelled… and the way she danced, the way she moved… she was the most exciting woman I ever met."

Wymez talked in a direct, understated way, but the story was so enthralling it needed no dramatics. Yet, the demeanor of the stocky, quietly reserved man changed perceptibly when he mentioned the woman.

"When she agreed to join with me, I decided to stay there with her. I always had an interest in working stone, even as a youngster, and I learned their way of making spear points. They chip off both sides of the stone, you understand?" He directed the question to Jondalar.

"Yes, bifacially, like an axe."

"But these points were not so thick and crude. They had good technique. I showed them some things, too, and I was quite content to accept their ways, especially after the Mother blessed her with a child, a boy. She asked me for a name, as was their custom. I chose Ranec."

That explains it, Ayla thought. His mother was dark-skinned.

"What made you decide to come back?" Jondalar asked.

"A few years after Ranec was born, difficulties began. The dark-skinned people I was living with had moved there from farther south, and some people from neighboring Camps didn't want to share hunting grounds. There were differences in customs. I almost convinced them to meet and talk about it. Then some young hotheads from both sides decided to fight about it instead. One death led to another for revenge, and then to attacks on home Camps.

"We set up good defenses, but there were more of them. It went on for some time and they kept killing us off, one after another. After a while, the sight of a person with lighter skin began to cause fear and hatred. Though I was one of them, they started distrusting me, and even Ranec. His skin was lighter than the others, and his features had a different cast. I talked to Ranec's mother, and we decided to leave. It was a sad parting, leaving family and many friends, but it wasn't safe to stay. Some of the hotheads even tried to keep us from going, but with help, we stole away in the night.

"We traveled north, to the straits. I knew some people lived there who made small boats which they used to cross the open water. We were warned that it was the wrong season, and it was a difficult crossing during the best of conditions. But I felt we had to get away, and decided to chance it.

"It was the wrong decision," Wymez said in a tightly controlled voice. "The boat capsized. Only Ranec and I made it across, and one bundle of her belongings." He paused for a moment before he continued the story. "We were still far from home, and it took a long time, but we finally arrived here, during a Summer Meeting."

"How long were you gone?" Jondalar asked.

"Ten years," Wymez said, then smiled. "We created quite a stir. No one expected to see me again, much less with Ranec. Nezzie didn't even recognize me, but my little sister was only a girl when I left. She and Talut had just completed their Matrimonial and were setting up the Lion Camp with Tulie and both of her mates, and their children. They invited me to join them. Nezzie adopted Ranec, though he is still the son of my hearth, and took care of him as though he were her own, even after Danug was born."

When he stopped talking, it took a moment to realize he was through. Everyone wanted to hear more. Even though most of them had heard many of his adventures, he always seemed to have new stories or new twists to old stories.

"I think Nezzie would be everyone's mother, if she could," Tulie said, recalling the time of his return. "I had Deegie at the breast then, and Nezzie couldn't get enough of playing with her."

"She does more than mother me!" Talut said, with a playful grin as he patted her broad backside. He had gotten another waterbag of the powerful drink and was passing it on after taking a swallow.

"Talut! I'll do more than mother you, all right!" She was trying to sound angry, but stifling a smile.

"Is that a promise?" he countered.

"You know what I meant, Talut," Tulie said, brushing aside the rather obvious innuendos between her brother and his woman. "She couldn't even let Rydag go. He's so sickly, he'd have been better off."

Ayla's eye was drawn to the child. Tulie's comment had bothered him. Her words had not been intentionally unkind, but Ayla knew he didn't like being spoken of as though he wasn't there. There wasn't anything he could do about it, though. He couldn't tell her how he felt, and without thinking, she assumed that because he couldn't speak, he didn't feel.

Ayla wanted to ask about the child, too, but felt it might be presumptuous. Jondalar did it for her, though it was to satisfy his own curiosity.

"Nezzie, would you tell us about Rydag? I think Ayla would be particularly interested – and so would I."

Nezzie leaned over and took the child from Latie, and held him on her lap while she gathered her thoughts.

"We were out after megaceros, you know, the giant deer with the great antlers," she began, "and planned to build a surround to drive them into – that's the best way to hunt the big-antlered ones. When I first noticed the woman hiding near our hunting camp, I thought it was strange. You seldom see flathead women, and never alone."

Ayla was leaning close, listening intently.

"She didn't run away when she saw me looking at her, either, only when I tried to get closer. Then I saw she was pregnant. I thought she might be hungry, so I left some food out near the place she was hiding. In the morning it was gone, so I left more before we broke camp.

"I thought I saw her the next day a few times, but I wasn't sure. Then that night, when I was by the fire nursing Rugie, I saw her again. I got up and tried to get closer to her. She ran away again, but she moved like she was in pain, and I realized she was in labor. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to help, but she kept running away, and it was getting dark. I told Talut, and he got some people together to go after her."

"That was strange, too," Talut said, adding his part to Nezzie's story. "I thought we'd have to circle around and trap her, but when I yelled at her to stop, she just sat on the ground and waited. She didn't seem too frightened of me, and when I beckoned to her to come, she got right up and followed behind me, like she knew what to do and understood I wouldn't hurt her."

"I don't know how she even walked," Nezzie continued. "She was in such pain. She was quick to understand that I wanted to help her, but I don't know how much help I was. I wasn't even sure she'd live to deliver her baby. She never cried out, though. Finally, near morning, her son was born. I was surprised to see he was one of mixed spirits. Even that young you could tell he was different.

"The woman was so weak I thought it might give her reason to live if I showed her that her son was alive, and she seemed eager to see him. But I guess she was too far gone, must have lost too much blood. It was as though she just gave up. She died before the sun came up.

"Everybody told me to leave him to die with his mother, but I was nursing Rugie anyway, and had a lot of milk. It wasn't that much trouble to put him to my breast, too." She hugged him protectively. "I know he's weak. Maybe I should have left him, but I couldn't love Rydag any more if he were my own. And I'm not sorry I kept him."

Rydag looked up at Nezzie with his big, glowing brown eyes, then put thin arms around her neck and laid his head on her breast. Nezzie rocked him as she held him.

"Some people say he's an animal because he can't talk, but I know he understands. And he's not an 'abomination' either," she added, with an angry look at Frebec. "Only the Mother knows why the spirits that made him were mixed."

Ayla was fighting to hold back tears. She didn't know how these people would react to tears; her watering eyes had always bothered people of the Clan. Watching the woman and the child, she was overwhelmed with memories. She ached to hold her son, and grieved anew for Iza, who had taken her in and mothered her, though she had been as different to the Clan as Rydag was to the Lion Camp. But more than anything, she wished there was some way she could explain to Nezzie how moved she was, how grateful she was for Rydag's sake… and her own. Inexplicably, Ayla felt it would somehow help repay Iza if she could find a way to do something for Nezzie.

"Nezzie, he knows," Ayla said softly. "He is not animal, not flathead. He is child of Clan, and child of Others."

"I know he is not an animal, Ayla," Nezzie said, "but what is Clan?"

"People, like mother of Rydag. You say flathead, they say Clan," Ayla explained.

"What do you mean, 'they say Clan'? They can't talk," Tulie interjected.

"Not say many words. But they talk. They talk with hands."

"How do you know?" Frebec asked. "What makes you so smart?"

Jondalar took a deep breath and held it, waiting for her answer.

"I lived with Clan before. I talked like Clan. Not with words, until Jondalar came," Ayla said. "The Clan were my people."

There was a stunned silence as the meaning of her words became clear.

"You mean you lived with flatheads! You lived with those dirty animals!" Frebec exclaimed with disgust, jumping up and backing away. "No wonder she can't talk right. If she lived with them she's as bad as they are. Nothing but animals, all of them, including that mixed-up perversion of yours, Nezzie."

The Camp was in an uproar. Even if some might have agreed with him, Frebec had gone too far. He had overstepped the bounds of courtesy to visitors, and had even insulted the headman's mate. But it had long been an embarrassment to him that he belonged to the Camp that had taken in the "abomination of mixed spirits," and he was still chafing under the barbs of Fralie's mother in the most recent round of their long-standing battle. He wanted to take out his irritation on someone.

Talut roared to the defense of Nezzie, and Ayla. Tulie was quick to defend the honor of the Camp. Crozie, smiling maliciously, was alternately haranguing Frebec and browbeating Fralie, and the others were voicing their opinions loudly. Ayla looked from one to another, wanting to put her hands over her ears to shut out the noise.

Suddenly Talut boomed a shout for silence. It was loud enough to startle everyone into quiet. Then Mamut's drum was heard. It had a settling, quieting effect.

"I think before anyone else says anything, we ought to hear what Ayla has to say," Talut said, as the drum stilled.

People leaned forward attentively, more than willing to listen to find out about the mysterious woman. Ayla wasn't sure she wanted to say any more to these noisy, rude people, but she felt she had no choice. Then, lifting her chin a bit, she thought, if they wanted to hear it, she'd tell them, but she was leaving in the morning.

"I no… I do not remember young life," Ayla began, "only earthquake, and cave lion who make scars on my leg. Iza tell me she find me by river… what is word, Mamut? Not awake?"

"Unconscious."

"Iza find me by river, unconscious. I am close to age of Rydag, younger. Maybe five years. I am hurt on leg from cave lion claw. Iza is… medicine woman. She heal my leg. Creb… Creb is Mog-ur… like Mamut… holy man… knows spirit world. Creb teach me to speak Clan way. Iza and Creb… all Clan… they take care of me. I am not Clan, but they take care of me."

Ayla was straining to recall everything Jondalar had told her about their language. She hadn't liked Frebec's comment that she couldn't talk right, any more than the rest of what he said. She glanced at Jondalar. His forehead was furrowed. He wanted her to be careful of something. She wasn't entirely sure of the reason for his concern, but perhaps it was not necessary to mention everything.

"I grow up with Clan, but leave… to find Others, like me. I am…" She stopped to think of the right counting word. "Fourteen years then. Iza tell me Others live north. I look long time, not find anyone. Then I find valley and stay, to make ready for winter. Kill horse for meat, then see small horse, her baby. I have no people. Young horse is like baby, I take care of young horse. Later, find young lion, hurt. Take lion, too, but he grow up, leave, find mate. I live in valley three years, alone. Then Jondalar come."

Ayla stopped then. No one spoke. Her explanation, so simply told, with no embellishments, could only be true, yet it was difficult to believe. It posed more questions than it answered. Could she really have been taken in and raised by flatheads? Could they really talk, or at least communicate? Could they really be so humane, so human? And what about her? If she was raised by them, was she human?

In the silence that followed, Ayla watched Nezzie and the boy, and then remembered an incident early in her life with the Clan. Creb had been teaching her to communicate with hand signs, but there was one gesture she had learned herself. It was a signal shown often to babies, and always used by children to the women who took care of them, and she recalled how Iza had felt when she first made the signal to her.

Ayla leaned forward and said to Rydag, "I want show you word. Word you say with hands."

He sat up, his eyes showing his interest, and excitement. He had understood, as he always did, every word that was said, and the talk about hand signs had caused vague stirrings within him. With everyone watching, she made a gesture, a purposeful movement with her hands. He made an attempt to copy her, frowned with puzzlement. Then, suddenly comprehension came to him from some deeply buried place, and it showed on his face. He corrected himself as Ayla smiled and nodded her head. Then he turned to Nezzie and made the gesture again. She looked at Ayla.

"He say to you, 'mother,'" Ayla explained.

"Mother?" Nezzie said, then closed her eyes, blinking back tears, as she held close the child she had cared for since his birth. "Talut! Did you see that? Rydag just called me 'mother.' I never thought I'd ever see the day Rydag would call me 'mother.'"

4

The mood of the Camp was subdued. No one knew what to say or what to think. Who were these strangers that had suddenly appeared in their midst? The man who claimed to come from someplace far to the west was easier to believe than the woman who said she had lived for three years in a valley nearby, and even more amazing, with a pack of flatheads before that. The woman's story threatened a whole structure of comfortable beliefs, yet it was difficult to doubt her.

Nezzie had carried Rydag to his bed, with tears in her eyes, after he had signed his first silent word. Everyone else took it as a signal that the storytellings were over and moved to their own hearths. Ayla used the opportunity to slip away. Pulling her parka, a hooded outer fur tunic, over her head, she went outside.

Whinney recognized her and nickered softly. Feeling her way in the dark, guided by the mare's snorting and blowing, Ayla found the horse.

"Is everything all right, Whinney? Are you comfortable? And Racer? Probably no more than I am," Ayla said, with thoughts as much as with the private language she used when she was with the horses. Whinney tossed her head, prancing delicately, then rested her head across the woman's shoulder as Ayla wrapped her arms around the shaggy neck and laid her forehead against the horse who had been her only companion for so long. Racer crowded in close and all three clung together for a moment of respite from all the unfamiliar experiences of the day.

After Ayla assured herself that the horses were fine, she walked down to the edge of the river. It felt good to be out of the lodge, away from people. She took a deep breath. The night air was cold and dry. Sparks of static crackled through her hair as she pushed back her fur-lined hood, stretched her neck and looked up.

The new moon, avoiding the great companion that held it tethered, had turned its shining eye out upon the distant depths whose whirling lights tantalized with promises of boundless freedom, but offered only cosmic emptiness. High thin clouds cloaked the fainter stars, but only veiled the more determined with shimmering halos, and made the sooty black sky feel close and soft.

Ayla was in a turmoil, conflicting emotions pulling at her. These were the Others she had looked for. The kind she had been born to. She would have grown up with people like them, comfortable, at home, if it hadn't been for the earthquake. Instead she had been raised by the Clan. She knew Clan customs, but the ways of her own people were strange. Yet if it hadn't been for the Clan, she wouldn't have grown up at all. She couldn't go back to them, but she didn't feel that she belonged here, either.

These people were so noisy, and disorderly. Iza would have said they had no manners. Like that Frebec man, speaking out of turn, without asking permission, and then everyone yelling and talking at once. She thought Talut was a leader, but even he had to shout to make himself heard. Brun would never have had to shout. The only time she ever heard him shout was to warn someone of impending danger. Everyone in the clan kept the leader at a certain level of awareness; Brun had only to signal, and within heartbeats, he would have had everyone's attention.

She didn't like the way these people talked about the Clan, either, calling them flatheads and animals. Couldn't anyone see they were people, too? A little different, maybe, but people just the same. Nezzie knew it. In spite of what the rest said, she knew Rydag's mother was a woman, and the child to whom she gave birth only a baby. He's mixed, though, like my son, Ayla thought, and like Oda's little girl at the Clan Gathering. How could Rydag's mother have had a child of mixed spirits like that?

Spirits! Is it really spirits that makes babies? Does a man's totem spirit overcome a woman's and make a baby grow inside her, the way the Clan thinks? Does the Great Mother choose and combine the spirits of a man and a woman and then put them inside a woman, the way Jondalar and these people believe?

Why am I the only one who thinks it's a man, not a spirit, that starts a baby growing inside a woman? A man, who does it with his organ… his manhood, Jondalar calls it. Why else would men and women come together like they do?

When Iza told me about the medicine, she said that it strengthened her totem and that's what kept her from having a baby for so many years. Maybe it did, but I didn't take it when I was living alone and no babies got started by themselves. It was only after Jondalar came that I even thought about looking for that golden thread plant and the antelope sage root again…

After Jondalar showed me it didn't have to hurt… after he showed me how wonderful it could be for a man and woman together…

I wonder what would happen if I stopped taking Iza's secret medicine? Would I have a baby? Would I have Jondalar's baby? If he put his manhood there, where babies come from?

The thought brought a flush of warmth to her face, and a tingling to her nipples. It's too late today, she thought, I already took the medicine this morning, but what if I just made an ordinary tea tomorrow? Could I start Jondalar's baby growing? We wouldn't have to wait, though. We could try tonight…

She smiled to herself. You just want him to touch you, and put his mouth on your mouth, and on… She shivered with anticipation, closing her eyes to let her body remember how he could make it feel.

"Ayla?" a voice barked.

She jumped at the sound. She hadn't heard Jondalar coming, and the tone he used wasn't in keeping with the way she was feeling. It dispelled the warmth. Something was bothering him. Something had been bothering him since they arrived; she wished she could discover what it was.

"Yes."

"What are you doing out here?" he snapped.

What had she been doing? "I am feeling the night, and breathing, and thinking about you," she answered, explaining as fully as she could.

It wasn't the answer Jondalar expected, though he wasn't sure what answer he did expect. He had been fighting down a hard knot of anger and anxiety that had made his stomach churn ever since the dark-skinned man appeared. Ayla seemed to find him so interesting, and Ranec was always looking at her. Jondalar had tried to swallow his anger and convince himself it was silly to think there was anything more to it. She needed other friends. Just because he was the first didn't mean he was the only man she would ever want to know.

Yet when Ayla asked Ranec about his background, Jondalar felt himself flush with hot rage and shudder with cold terror at the same time. Why did she want to know more about this fascinating stranger if she wasn't interested? The tall man resisted an urge to snatch her away, and was bothered because he had such a feeling. She had the right to choose her friends, and they were only friends. They had only talked and looked at each other.

When she went outside alone, Jondalar, seeing Ranec's dark eyes follow her, quickly put on his parka and went out after her. He saw her standing by the river, and for some reason he couldn't explain, felt sure she was thinking about Ranec. Her answer first caught him by surprise, then he relaxed, and smiled.

"I should have known, if I asked, I'd get a complete and honest answer. Breathing, and feeling the night – you're wonderful, Ayla."

She smiled back. She wasn't sure what she had done, but something had made him smile and put the happiness back in his voice. The warmth she had been feeling returned, and she moved toward him. Even in the dark of night, with barely enough starlight to show a face, Jondalar sensed her mood from the way she moved, and responded in kind. The next moment she was in his arms, with his mouth on hers, and all her doubts and worries fled from her mind. She would go anywhere, live with any people, learn any strange customs, so long as she had Jondalar.

After a moment she looked up at him. "Do you remember when I asked you what your signal was? How I should tell you when I wanted you to touch me, and wanted your manhood in me?"

"Yes, I remember," he said, smiling wryly.

"You said to kiss, or just ask. I am asking. Can you make your manhood ready?"

She was so serious, and so ingenuous, and so appealing. He bent his head to kiss her again, and held her so close she could almost see the blue of his eyes, and the love in them. "Ayla, my funny, beautiful woman," he said. "Do you know how much I love you?"

But as he held her, he felt a flush of guilt. If he loved her so much, why did he feel so embarrassed about the things she did? When that Frebec man backed away from her in disgust, he'd wanted to die of shame that he had brought her, that he could be associated with her. A moment later, he'd hated himself for it. He loved her. How could he be ashamed of the woman he loved?

That dark man, Ranec, wasn't ashamed. The way he looked at her, with his white gleaming teeth and his dark flashing eyes, laughing, coaxing, teasing; when Jondalar thought of it, he had to fight an impulse to strike out at him. Every time he thought of it, he had to fight the urge again. He loved her so much he couldn't bear the thought that she might want someone else, maybe someone who wasn't embarrassed by her. He loved her more than he ever thought it was possible to love anyone. But how could he be ashamed of the woman he loved?

Jondalar kissed her again, harder, holding her so tight it hurt, then with an almost frenzied ardor, he kissed her throat and neck. "Do you know what it feels like to know, finally, that you can fall in love? Ayla, can't you feel how much I love you?"

He was so earnest, so fervent, she felt a pang of fear, not for herself, but for him. She loved him, more than she could ever find words for, but this love he felt for her was not quite the same. It wasn't so much stronger, as more demanding, more insistent. As though he feared he would lose that which he had finally won. Totems, especially strong totems, had a way of knowing, and testing, just such fears. She wanted to find a way to deflect his outpouring of powerful emotion.

"I can feel how ready you are," she said, with a little grin.

But he didn't respond with a lighter mood, as she had hoped. Instead he kissed her fiercely, crushing her until she thought her ribs would crack. Then he was fumbling inside her parka, under her tunic, reaching for her breasts, trying to untie the drawstring of her trousers.

She had never known him like this, needing, craving, imploring in his urgency. His way was usually more tender, more considerate of her needs. He knew her body better than she did, and he enjoyed his knowledge and skill. But this time his needs were stronger. Knowing the moment for what it was, she gave herself up to him, and lost herself in the powerful expression of his love. She was as ready for him as he was for her. She undid the drawstring and let her legged garment drop, then helped, him with his.

Before she knew it, she was on the hard ground near the bank of the river. She caught a glimpse of faintly hazy stars before closing her eyes. He was on her, his mouth hard on hers, his tongue prodding, searching, as though he could find with it what he sought so eagerly with his warm and rigid member. She opened to him, her mouth and her thighs, then reached for him and guided him into her moist, inviting depths. She gasped as he entered, and heard an almost strangled moan, then felt his shaft sink in to fill her, as she strained to him.

Even in his frenzy, he marveled at the wonder of her, at how suited they were, that her depths matched his size. He felt her warm folds embrace him fully, and almost, at that first instant, reached his peak. For a moment, he struggled to hold back, to exercise the control he was so accustomed to, then he let go. He plunged in, and again, and once more, and then with an inexpressible shudder, he felt a rising peak of wonder, and cried out her name.

"Ayla! Oh, my Ayla, my Ayla. I love you!"

"Jondalar, Jondalar, Jondalar…"

He finished a last few motions, then with a groan, buried his face in her neck and held her as he lay still, spent. She felt a stone jabbing her back, but she ignored it.

After a while he raised himself and looked down at her, his forehead furrowed with concern. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Why are you sorry?"

"It was too fast, and I didn't make you ready, didn't give you Pleasures, too."

"I was ready, Jondalar, I had Pleasure. Did I not ask you? I have Pleasure in your Pleasure. I have Pleasure in your love, in your strong feeling for me."

"But you did not feel the moment as I did."

"I did not need it. I had different feeling, different Pleasure. Is it always necessary?" she asked.

"No, I suppose not," he said, frowning. Then he kissed her and lingered over it. "And this night is not over yet. Come, get up. It's cold out here. Let's go find a warm bed. Deegie and Branag have already pulled their drapes closed. They will be separated until next summer and are eager."

Ayla smiled. "But not as eager as you were." She couldn't see it, but she thought he blushed. "I love you, Jondalar. Everything. All you do. Even your eager…" She shook her head. "No, that's not right, that's the wrong word."

"The word you want is 'eagerness,' I think."

"I love even your eagerness. Yes, that's right. At least I know your words better than Mamutoi." She paused. "Frebec said I didn't speak right. Jondalar, will I ever learn to speak right?"

"I don't speak Mamutoi quite right, either. It's not the language I grew up with. Frebec just likes to make trouble," Jondalar said, helping her up. "Why does every Cave, every Camp, every group have to have a troublemaker? Don't pay any attention to him, no one else does. You speak very well. I'm amazed at the way you pick up languages. You'll be speaking Mamutoi better than I do before long."

"I have to learn how to speak with words. I have nothing else now," she said softly. "I don't know anyone who speaks the language I grew up with, any more." She closed her eyes for a moment as a feeling of bleak emptiness came over her.

She shook it off and started to put her legged garments back on, and then stopped. "Wait," she said, taking them off again. "Long ago, when I first became a woman, Iza told me everything a woman of the Clan needed to know about men and women, even though she doubted that I'd ever find a mate and would need to know it. The Others may not believe the same way, even the signals between men and women are not the same, but the first night I sleep in a place of the Others, I think I should make a cleansing after our Pleasures."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm going to wash in the river."

"Ayla! It's cold. It's dark. It could be dangerous."

"I won't go far. Just here at the edge," she said, throwing down her parka and pulling her inner tunic up over her head.

The water was cold. Jondalar watched from the bank, and got himself just wet enough to know how cold it was. Her feeling for the ceremony of the occasion made him think of the purifying rituals of First Rites, and he decided a little cleansing wouldn't hurt him either. She was shivering when she got out. He held her in his arms to warm her. The shaggy bison fur of his parka dried her, then he helped her get into her tunic and parka.

She felt alive, and tingly, and fresh as they walked back to the earthlodge. Most people were settling down for the night when they entered. Fires were banked low, and voices were softened. The first hearth was empty, though the mammoth roast was still in evidence. As they moved quietly along the passageway through the Lion Hearth, Nezzie got up and detained them.

"I just wanted to thank you, Ayla," she said; glancing at one of the beds along the wall. Ayla followed her eyes and saw three small forms sprawled out on one large bed. Latie and Rugie shared it with Rydag. Danug, sprawled out in sleep, took up another bed, and Talut, stretched to his full length propped up on an elbow waiting for Nezzie, smiled at her from a third. She nodded and smiled back, not sure what the proper response was.

They moved to the next hearth as Nezzie crawled in beside the red-haired giant, and tried to pass through silently, so as not to disturb anyone. Ayla felt someone watching her and looked toward the wall. Two shining eyes and a smile were observing them from the dark recess. She sensed Jondalar's shoulders stiffen and looked quickly away. She thought she heard a soft chuckle, then thought it must have been the snores coming from the bed along the opposite wall.

At the large fourth hearth, one of the beds was hung with a heavy leather drape, closing the space off from the passageway, though sounds and movement could be detected within. Ayla noticed that most of the other sleeping places in the longhouse had similar drapes tied up to mammoth bone rafters above or to posts alongside, though not all of them were closed. Mamut's bed on the side wall opposite theirs was open. He was in it, but she knew he wasn't asleep.

Jondalar lit a stick of wood on a hot coal in the fireplace, and shielding it with his hand, carried it to the wall near the head of their sleeping platform. There, in a niche, a thick, flattish stone in which a saucer-shaped depression had been pecked out, was half-filled with fat. He lit a wick of twisted cattail fuzz, lighting up a small Mother figure behind the stone lamp. Then he untied the thongs that held up the drape around their bed, and when it fell, motioned to her.

She slipped in and climbed up on the platform bed piled high with soft furs. Sitting in the middle, closed off by the drape and lit by the soft flickering light, she felt secluded, and secure. It was a private little place all their own. She was reminded of the small cave she had found when she was a girl, where she used to go when she wanted to be alone.

"They are so clever, Jondalar. I would not have thought of this."

Jondalar stretched out beside her, pleased by her delight. "You like the drape closed?"

"Oh, yes. It makes you feel alone, even if you know people are all around. Yes, I like it." Her smile was radiant.

He pulled her down to him, and kissed her lightly. "You are so beautiful when you smile, Ayla."

She looked at his face, suffused with love: at his compelling eyes, violet in the light of the fire instead of their usual vivid blue; at his long yellow hair disarrayed on the furs; at his strong chin and high forehead so different from the chinless jaw and receding forehead of the men of the Clan.

"Why do you cut off your beard?" she asked, touching the stubble on his jaw.

"I don't know. I'm used to it, I guess. In summer, it's cooler, not as itchy. I usually let it grow in winter. Helps keep the face warm when I'm outside. Don't you like it shaved?"

She frowned in puzzlement. "It is not for me to say. A beard is a man's, to cut or not as he pleases. I only asked because I had not ever seen a man who cut his beard before I met you. Why do you ask if I like it or not?"

"I ask, because I want to please you. If you like a beard, I'll let it grow."

"It does not matter. Your beard is not important. You are important. You give me please… No." She shook her head angrily. "You give me pleases… Pleasures… you please me," she corrected.

He grinned at her efforts, and the unintended double meaning of her word. "I would like to give you Pleasures." He pulled her to him again, and kissed her. She snuggled down beside him, on her side. He rolled over, then sat up and looked down at her. "Like the first time," he said. "There's even a donii to watch over us." He looked at the niche with the firelit ivory carving of the motherly figure.

"It is the first time… in a place of the Others," she said, closing her eyes, feeling both anticipation and the solemnity of the moment.

He cupped her face in his hands and kissed both eyelids, then gazed for a long moment at the woman he thought more beautiful than any woman he'd ever known. There was a quality of the exotic about her. Her cheekbones were higher than Zelandonii women, her eyes more widely spaced. They were framed with thick lashes, darker than her heavy hair that was gold as autumn grass. Her jaw was firm, her chin slightly pointed.

She had a small straight scar in the hollow of her throat. He kissed it, and felt her shiver with pleasure. He moved back up and looked down at her again, then kissed the end of her fine, straight nose, and the corner of her full mouth, where it turned up in the hint of a smile.

He could feel her tension. Like a hummingbird, motionless but full of quivering excitement he couldn't see, only sense, she was keeping her eyes closed, making herself lie still and wait. He watched her, savoring the moment, then he kissed her mouth, opened his and sought entry with his tongue, and felt her receive it. No prodding this time, only gently seeking, and then accepting hers.

He sat up, saw her open her eyes and smile at him. He pulled off his tunic, and helped her off with hers. Easing her back down, he leaned over and took a firm nipple in his mouth, and suckled. She gasped as a shock of excitement coursed through her. She felt a warm wet tingling between her legs, and wondered why Jondalar's mouth on her nipple should make her feel sensation where he hadn't even touched.

He nuzzled and nibbled lightly, until she pushed toward him, then sucked in earnest. She moaned with pleasure. He reached for the other breast, caressed its full roundness and turgid tip. She was already breathing hard. He let go of her breast and began to kiss her neck and throat, found her ear and nibbled on a lobe, then blew in it, caressing her arms and her breasts with both hands. Shivers shook her.

He kissed her mouth, then ran his warm tongue slowly over her chin, down the middle of her throat, between her breasts, and down to her navel. His manhood had grown again, and pushed insistently against the restraints of the drawstring closure. He untied her drawstring first, and pulled the long pants off, then starting at her navel, continued in the direction he was going. He felt soft hair, and then his tongue found the top of her warm slit. He felt her jump when he reached a small, hard bump. When he stopped, she gave a small cry of dismay.

He untied his own drawstring then, and let his striving member free as he pulled off his trousers. Ayla sat up and took it in her hand, letting it slide back and forth over the full length, feeling the warmth, the smooth skin, the hard fullness. He was pleased that his size did not frighten her, as it had so many women when they first saw him, not even the first time. She bent down to him, and he felt her warm mouth enclose him. He felt pulling as she moved up and down, and he was glad he had already released his strongest urge or he might not have found the control now.

"Ayla, this time I want to Pleasure you," he said, pushing her away.

She looked at him with eyes dilated, dark and luminous, kissed him, and then nodded. He held her shoulders and pushed her back down on the furs, and kissed her mouth and throat again, giving her chills of Pleasure. He cupped both breasts in his hands, held them together, and went from one sensitive nipple to the other, and in between. Then his tongue found her navel again, and he circled it with an ever-increasing spiral, until he reached the soft hair of her mound.

He moved over between her thighs, spreading them, then spread her folds back with his hands and savored a long slow taste. She shuddered, half sat up, cried out, and he felt himself surge anew. He loved to Pleasure her, to feel her response to his skill. It was like drawing a fine blade out of a piece of flint. It gave him a special feeling of joy to know he had been the first to give her Pleasure. She had only known force and pain before he had evoked in her the Gift of Pleasure which the Great Earth Mother had given to Her children.

He explored her tenderly, knowing where her pleasurable sensations lay, teasing them with his tongue, and with his skilled hands, reaching inside. She began to move against him, crying out and tossing her head, and he knew she was ready. He found the hard bump, began to work it, while her breath came fast, his own thrusting manhood eager for her. Then she cried out, he felt a wetness, as she reached for him.

"Jondalar… ahhh… Jondalar!"

She was beyond herself, beyond any knowing except him. She wanted him, wanted to feel his fullness inside her. He was on her, she was helping him, guiding him, then he was sliding in, and felt a surge that brought him to that inexpressible peak. It backed off, and he plunged in again, deep; she embraced him all.

He pulled out, and then pushed in again, and again, and again. He wanted to draw it out, make it last. He wanted it never to end, and yet he couldn't wait for it. With each powerful push, he felt closer. Sweat glistened on their bodies in the flickering light as they matched their timing, found their stride, and moved with the rhythm of life.

Breathing hard, they strained to meet at each stroke, reaching, pulsing, all will, all thought, all feeling concentrated. Then, almost unexpectedly, the intensity peaked. In a burst beyond them both, they reached the crest, and broke through with a spasm of joy. They held for a moment, as though trying to become one with each other, and then let go.

They lay unmoving, catching their breaths. The lamp sputtered, dimmed, flared up again, then went out. After a while Jondalar rolled over and lay beside her, feeling in a twilight state between sleeping and waking. But Ayla was still wide awake, her eyes open in the dark, listening, for the first time in years, to sounds of people.

The murmur of low voices, a man's and a woman's, came from the bed nearby, and a little beyond it, the shallow rasping breath of the sleeping shaman. She could hear a man snoring at the next hearth, and from the first hearth, the unmistakable rhythmic grunts and cries of Talut and Nezzie sharing Pleasures. From the other direction, a baby cried. Someone made comforting sounds until the crying stopped abruptly. Ayla smiled, no doubt a breast had been offered. Farther away voices of restrained anger rose in an outburst, then hushed, and still farther a hacking cough could be heard.

Nights had always been the worst time during her lonely years in the valley. During the day she could find something to do to keep busy, but at night the stark emptiness of her cave had pressed heavily. In the beginning, hearing only the sound of her own breath, she even had trouble sleeping. With the Clan, there was always someone around at night – the worst punishment that could be inflicted was to be set apart, alone; avoidance, ostracism, the death curse.

She knew only too well that it was, indeed, a terrible punishment. She knew it even more at that moment. Lying in the dark, hearing the sounds of life around her, feeling the warmth of Jondalar beside her, for the first time since she met these people, whom she called Others, she felt at home.

"Jondalar?" she said softly.

"Hmmmm."

"Are you sleeping?"

"Not yet," he mumbled.

"These are nice people. You were right, I did need to come and get to know them."

His brain cleared quickly. He had hoped, once she met her own kind of people and they were no longer so unknown, they would not seem so fearful to her. He had been gone many years, the Journey back to his home would be long and difficult, she had to want to come with him. But her valley had become home. It offered everything she needed to survive, and she had made a life for herself there, using the animals as a substitute for the people she lacked. Ayla did not want to leave; instead she had wanted Jondalar to stay.

"I knew you would, Ayla," he said warmly, persuasively, "if you just got to know them."

"Nezzie reminds me of Iza. How do you suppose Rydag's mother got pregnant with him?"

"Who knows why the Mother gave her a child of mixed spirits? The ways of the Mother are always mysterious."

Ayla was silent, for a while. "I don't think the Mother gave her mixed spirits. I think she knew a man of the Others."

Jondalar frowned. "I know you think men have something to do with starting life, but how could a flathead female know a man?"

"I don't know how, but women of the Clan don't travel alone and they stay away from the Others. The men don't want Others around the women. They think babies are started by a man's totem spirit, and they don't want the spirit of a man of the Others to get too close. And the women are afraid of them. There are always new stories at Clan Gatherings of people being bothered or hurt by the Others, particularly women.

"But Rydag's mother wasn't afraid of the Others. Nezzie said she followed them for two days, and she came with Talut when he signaled her. Any other Clan woman would have run away from him. She must have known one before, and one who treated her well, or at least did not hurt her, because she wasn't afraid of Talut. When she needed help, what gave her reason to think she might find it from the Others?"

"Maybe it was just because she saw Nezzie nursing," Jondalar suggested.

"Maybe. But that doesn't answer why she was alone. The only reason I can think of is that she was cursed and driven from her clan. Clan women are not often cursed. It is not their nature to bring it on themselves. Perhaps it had something to do with a man of the Others…"

Ayla paused for a moment, then added thoughtfully, "Rydag's mother must have wanted her baby very much. It took a lot of courage for her to approach the Others, even if she did know a man before. It was only when she saw the baby and thought he was deformed that she gave up. The Clan doesn't like mixed children, either."

"How can you be so sure she knew a man?"

"She came to the Others to have her baby, which means she had no clan to help her and she had some reason to think Nezzie and Talut would. Maybe she met him later, but I'm sure she knew a man who made Pleasures with her… or maybe just relieved his needs. She had a mixed child, Jondalar."

"Why do you think it's a man that causes life to start?"

"You can see it, Jondalar, if you think about it. Look at the boy that arrived today, Danug. He looks just like Talut. Only younger. I think Talut started him when he shared Pleasures with Nezzie."

"Does that mean she will have another child because they shared Pleasures tonight?" Jondalar asked. "Pleasures are shared often. They are a Gift of the Great Earth Mother and it honors Her when they are shared often. But women don't have children every time they share Her Gift. Ayla, if a man appreciates the Mother's Gifts, honors Her, then She may choose to take his spirit to mix with the woman he mates. If it is his spirit, the child may resemble him, as Danug resembles Talut, but it is the Mother who decides."

Ayla frowned in the dark. That was one question she hadn't resolved. "I don't know why a woman doesn't have a child every time. Maybe Pleasures must be shared several times before a baby can start, or perhaps only at certain times. Maybe it is only when a man's totem spirit is especially powerful and so can defeat a woman's, or maybe the Mother does choose, but She chooses the man and makes his manhood more powerful. Can you say for sure how She chooses? Do you know how the spirits are mixed? Couldn't they be mixed inside the woman when they share Pleasures?"

"I've never heard of that," Jondalar said, "but I suppose it could be." Now he was frowning in the dark. He was silent for so long Ayla thought he had gone to sleep, but then he spoke. "Ayla, if what you think is true, we might be starting a baby inside you every time we share the Mother's Gift."

"I think so, yes," Ayla said, delighted with the idea.

"Then we must stop!" Jondalar said, sitting up suddenly.

"But why? I want to have a baby started by you, Jondalar." Ayla's dismay was evident.

Jondalar rolled over and held her. "And I want you to, but not now. It is a long Journey back to my home. It could take a year or more. It could be dangerous for you to travel so far if you are with child."

"Can't we just go back to my valley then?" she asked.

Jondalar was afraid if they returned to her valley so that she could have a child in safety, they would never leave.

"Ayla, I don't think that would be a good idea. You shouldn't be alone then. I wouldn't know how to help you, you need women around. A woman can die in childbirth," he said, his voice constricted with anguish. He had seen it happen not long before.

It was true, Ayla realized. She had come close to death giving birth to her son. Without Iza, she would not have lived. This wasn't the time to have a baby, not even one of Jondalar's.

"Yes, you are right," she said, feeling a crushing disappointment. "It can be difficult. I… I… would want women around," she agreed.

He was silent again for a long time. "Ayla," he said, his voice almost cracked with strain, "maybe… maybe we shouldn't share the same bed… if… But it honors the Mother to share Her Gift," he blurted out.

How could she tell him truthfully that they didn't have to stop sharing Pleasures? Iza had warned her never to tell anyone, particularly a man, about the secret medicine. "I don't think you should worry about it," she said. "I don't know for sure if it is a man that causes children, and if the Great Mother chooses, She can choose any time, can't She?"

"Yes, and it has worried me. Yet if we avoid Her Gift, it might anger Her. She expects to be honored."

"Jondalar, if She chooses, She chooses. If the time comes, we can make a decision then. I wouldn't want you to offend Her."

"Yes, you're right, Ayla," he said, somewhat relieved.

With a twinge of regret, Ayla decided she would keep taking the medicine that prevented conception, but she dreamed of having babies that night, some with long blond hair, and others who resembled Rydag and Durc. It was near morning when she had a dream that took on a different dimension, ominous and otherworldly.

In the dream she had two sons, brothers whom no one would guess were brothers. One was tall and blond, like Jondalar, the other, older one, she knew was Durc though his face was in shadow. The two brothers approached each other from opposite directions in the middle of an empty, desolate, windblown prairie. She felt great anxiety; something terrible was about to happen, something she had to prevent. Then, with a shock of terror, she knew one of her sons would kill the other. As they drew closer, she tried to reach them, but a thick, viscous wall held her trapped. They were almost upon each other, arms raised as though to strike. She screamed.

"Ayla! Ayla! What's wrong?" Jondalar said, shaking her.

Suddenly Mamut was beside him. "Wake up, child. Wake up!" he said. "It is only a symbol, a message. Wake up, Ayla!"

"But one will die!" she cried, still filled with the emotions of the dream.

"It is not what you think, Ayla," Mamut said. "It may not mean one… brother will die. You must learn to search your dreams for their real meaning. You have the Talent; it is very strong, but you lack training."

Ayla's vision cleared and she saw two concerned faces looking at her, both tall men, one young and handsome, the other old and wise. Jondalar was holding up a stick of burning wood from the fireplace, to help her wake up. She sat up and tried to smile.

"Are you all right now?" Mamut asked.

"Yes. Yes. I am sorry to wake you," Ayla said, lapsing into Zelandonii, forgetting the old man did not understand that language.

"We will talk later," he said, smiling gently, and returned to his bed.

Ayla noticed the drape to the other occupied bed fall shut as she and Jondalar settled back down on their sleeping platform, and felt a little embarrassed that she had created such a stir. She cuddled to Jondalar's side, resting her head in the hollow beneath his shoulder, grateful for his warmth and his presence. She was almost asleep when her eyes suddenly flew open again.

"Jondalar," she said in a whisper, "how did Mamut know I dreamed about my sons, about one brother killing the other?" But he was already sleeping.

5

Ayla woke with a start, then lay still and listened. She heard a loud wail, again. Someone seemed to be in great pain. Concerned, she pushed the drape aside and looked out. Crozie was standing in the passageway near the sixth hearth with her arms outspread in an attitude of pleading despair calculated to draw sympathy.

"He would stab my breast! He would kill me! He would turn my own daughter against me!" Crozie shrieked as though she were dying, clutching her hands to her breast. Several people stopped to watch. "I give him my own flesh. Out of my own body."

"Give! You didn't give me a thing!" Frebec yelled. "I paid your Bride Price for Fralie."

"It was trivial! I could have gotten much more for her," Crozie snapped, her lament no more sincere than her scream of pain had been. "She came to you with two children. Proof of the Mother's favor. You lowered her value with your pittance. And the value of her children. And look at her! Already blessed again. I gave her to you out of kindness, out of the goodness of my heart…"

"And because no one else would take Crozie, even with her twice-blessed daughter," a nearby voice added.

Ayla turned to see who had spoken. The young woman who had worn the beautiful red tunic the day before was smiling at her.

"If you had any plans to sleep late, you can forget them," Deegie said. "They're at it early today."

"No. I get up," Ayla said. She looked around. The bed was empty, and except for the two women, no one was around. "Jondalar up." She found her clothes and began to dress. "I wake up, think woman hurt."

"No one is hurt. At least not that anyone can see. But I feel sorry for Fralie," Deegie said. "It's hard being caught in the middle like that."

Ayla shook her head. "Why they shout?"

"I don't know why they fight all the time. I suppose they both want Fralie's favor. Crozie is getting old and doesn't want Frebec to undermine her influence, but Frebec is stubborn. He didn't have much before and doesn't want to lose his new position. Fralie did bring him a lot of status, even with her low Bride Price." The visitor was obviously interested and Deegie sat down on a platform bed while Ayla dressed, warming to her subject.

"I don't think she'd put him aside, though. I think she cares for him, for all that he can be so nasty sometimes. It wasn't so easy to find another man – one willing to take her mother. Everyone saw how it was the first time, no one else wanted to put up with Crozie. That old woman can scream all she wants about giving her daughter away. She's the one who brought down Fralie's value. I'd hate to be pulled both ways like that. But I'm lucky. Even if I were going to an established Camp instead of starting a new one with my brother, Tulie would be welcome."

"Your mother go with you?" Ayla said, puzzled. She understood a woman moving to her mate's clan, but taking her mother along was new to her.

"I wish she would, but I don't think she will. I think she'd rather stay here. I don't blame her. It's better to be headwoman of your own Camp than the mother of one at another. I will miss her, though."

Ayla listened, fascinated. She didn't understand half of what Deegie said, and wasn't sure if she believed she understood the other half.

"It is sad to leave mother, and people," Ayla said. "But you have mate soon?"

"Oh, yes. Next summer. At the Summer Meeting. Mother finally got everything settled. She set such a high Bride Price I was afraid they'd never meet it, but they agreed. It's so hard waiting, though. If only Branag didn't have to leave now. But they're expecting him. He promised he'd go back right away…"

The two young women walked toward the entrance of the longhouse together, companionably, Deegie chatting and Ayla avidly listening.

It was cooler in the entrance foyer, but it wasn't until she felt the blast of cold air when the drape at the front arch was pulled back that Ayla realized how much the temperature had dropped. The frigid wind whipped her hair back and tugged at the heavy mammoth hide entrance cover, billowing it out with a sudden gust. A light dusting of snow had fallen during the night. A sharp crosscurrent picked up the fine flakes, swirled them into pockets and hollows, then scooped out the wind-blasted crystals and flung them across the open space. Ayla's face stung with a peppering of tiny hard pellets of ice.

Yet it had been warm inside, much warmer than a cave. She had put on her fur parka only to come out; she wouldn't have needed extra clothing if she had stayed in. She heard Whinney neigh. The horse and the colt, still tied to his lead, were as far back as they could get from the people and their activities. Ayla started toward them, then turned back to smile at Deegie. The young woman smiled back, and went to find Branag.

The mare seemed relieved when Ayla neared, nickering and tossing her head in greeting. The woman removed Racer's bridle, then walked with them down toward the river and around the bend. Whinney and Racer relaxed once the Camp was out of sight, and after some mutual affection, settled down to graze on the brittle dry grass.

Before starting back up Ayla stopped beside a bush. She untied the waist thong of her legged garment, but still was not sure what to do so the leggings wouldn't get wet when she passed water. She'd had the same problem ever since she started wearing the clothes. She had made the outfit for herself during the summer, patterning it after the one she had made for Jondalar, which was copied from the clothing the lion had ripped. But she hadn't worn it until they started on their trip of exploration. Jondalar had been so pleased to see her wearing clothes like his, rather than the comfortable leather wrap usually worn by women of the Clan, she decided to leave it behind. But she hadn't discovered how to manage this basic necessity easily and she didn't want to ask him. He was a man. How would he know what a woman needed to do?

She removed the close-fitting trousers, which required that she also remove her footwear – high-topped moccasins that wrapped around the lower pant legs – then spread her legs and bent over in her usual manner. Balancing on one foot to put the lower garment back on, she noticed the smoothly rolling river and changed her mind. Instead, she pulled her parka and tunic up over her head, took off her amulet from around her neck, and walked down the bank toward the water. The cleansing ritual should be completed, and she always did enjoy a morning swim.

She had planned to swish out her mouth, and rinse off her face and hands in the river. She didn't know what means these people used to clean themselves. When it was necessary, if the woodpile was buried under ice and fuel was scarce, or if the wind was blowing hard through the cave, or if water was frozen so solid it was hard to break off enough even for drinking, she could do without washing, but she preferred to be clean. And in the back of her mind she was still thinking of the ritual, the completion of a purification ceremony after her first night in the cave – or the earthlodge – of the Others.

She looked out at the water. The current moved swiftly along the main channel, but ice in transparent sheets filmed puddles and the quieter backwaters of the river, and crusted white at the edge. A finger of the bank, sparsely covered with bleached and withered grass, stretched into the river forming a still pool between itself and the shore. A single birch tree, dwarfed to a shrub, grew on the spit of dirt.

Ayla walked toward the pool and stepped in, shattering the perfect pane of ice which glazed it. She gasped as the freezing water brought a hard shiver, and grabbed a skeletal limb of the small birch to steady herself, as she moved into the current. A sharp gust of freezing wind buffeted her bare skin, raising gooseflesh, and whipped her hair into her face. She clenched her chattering teeth and waded in deeper. When the water was nearly waist-high, she splashed icy water on her face, then with another quick indrawn breath of shock, stooped down and submerged up to her neck.

For all her gasps and shivers, she was used to cold water and, she thought, soon enough it would be impossible to bathe in the river at all. When she got out, she pushed the water off her body with her hands and dressed quickly. Tingling warmth replaced the numbing cold as she walked back up the slope from the river, making her feel renewed and invigorated, and she smiled as a tired sun momentarily bested the overcast sky.

As she approached the Camp she stopped at the edge of a trampled area near the longhouse and watched the several knots of people engaged in various occupations.

Jondalar was talking with Wymez and Danug, and she had no doubts as to the subject of the conversation of the three flint knappers. Not far from them four people were untying cords that had held a deer hide – now soft, flexible, nearly white leather – to a rectangular frame made of mammoth rib bones lashed together with thongs. Nearby, Deegie was vigorously poking and stretching a second hide, which was strung on a similar frame, with the smoothly blunted end of another rib bone. Ayla knew working the hide as it was drying was done to make the leather supple, but binding it to the mammoth bone frames was a new method of stretching leather. She was interested and noted the details of the process.

A series of small slits had been cut near the outside edge following the contour of the animal skin, then a cord was passed through each one, tied to the frame and pulled tight to stretch the hide taut. The frame was propped against the longhouse and could be turned around and worked from either side. Deegie was leaning with all her weight on the rib-bone staker, pushing the blunt end into the mounted hide until it seemed the long shaft would poke right through, but the strong flexible leather yielded without giving way.

A few others were busy with activities Ayla was not familiar with, but the rest of the people were putting the skeletal remains of mammoths into pits that had been dug in the ground. Bones and ivory were scattered all over. She looked up as someone called out and saw Talut and Tulie coming toward the Camp bearing on their shoulders a large curved ivory tusk still attached to the skull of a mammoth. Most of the bones did not come from animals they had killed. Occasional finds on the steppes provided some, but the majority came from the piles of bones that accumulated at sharp turns in rivers, where raging waters had deposited the remains of animals.

Then Ayla noticed another person watching the Camp not far from her. She smiled as she went to join Rydag, but was startled to see him smile back. People of the Clan did not smile. An expression showing bared teeth usually denoted hostility on a face with Clan features, or extreme nervousness and fear. His grin seemed, for a moment, out of place. But the boy had not grown up with the Clan and had learned a friendlier meaning for the expression.

"Good morning, Rydag," Ayla said, at the same time making the Clan greeting gesture with the slight variation that indicated a child was being addressed. Ayla noticed again the flicker of understanding at her hand signal. He remembers! she thought. He has the memories, I'm sure of it. He knows the signs, he would only have to be reminded. Not like me. I had to learn them.

She recalled Creb's and Iza's consternation when they discovered how difficult it was for her, compared with Clan youngsters, to remember anything. She had had to struggle to learn and memorize, while children of the Clan only had to be shown once. Some people had thought Ayla was rather stupid, but as she grew up she taught herself to memorize quickly so they wouldn't lose patience with her.

But Jondalar had been astonished at her skill. Compared to others like herself, her trained memory was a wonder, and it enhanced her ability to learn. He was amazed at how easily she learned new languages, for example, almost without effort it seemed. But gaining that skill had not been easy, and though she had learned to memorize quickly, she never did really comprehend what Clan memories were. None of the Others could; it was a basic difference between them.

With brains even larger than those who came after, the Clan had not so much less intelligence as a different kind of intelligence. They learned from memories that were in some ways similar to instinct but more conscious, and stored in the backs of their large brains at birth was everything their forebears knew. They didn't need to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to live, they remembered them. As children, they needed only to be reminded of what they already knew to become accustomed to the process. As adults, they knew how to draw upon their stored memories.

They remembered easily, but anything new was grasped only with great effort. Once something new was learned – or a new concept understood, or a new belief accepted – they never forgot it and they passed it on to their progeny, but they learned, and changed, slowly. Iza had come to understand, if not comprehend, their difference when she was teaching Ayla the skills of a medicine woman. The strange girl child could not remember nearly as well as they, but she learned much more quickly.

Rydag said a word. Ayla did not understand him immediately. Then she recognized it. It was her name! Her name spoken in a way that had once been familiar, the way some people of the Clan had said it.

Like them, the child was not capable of a fully articulate speech; he could vocalize, but he could not make some of the important sounds that were necessary to reproduce the language of the people he lived with. They were the same sounds Ayla had difficulty with, from lack of practice. It was that limitation in the vocal apparatus of the Clan, and those that went before, that had led them to develop instead a rich and comprehensive language of hand signs and gestures to express the thoughts of their rich and comprehensive culture. Rydag understood the Others, the people he lived with; he understood the concept of language. He just couldn't make himself understood to them.

Then the youngster made the gesture he had made to Nezzie the night before; he called Ayla "mother." Ayla felt her heart beat faster. The last one who had made that sign to her was her son, and Rydag looked so much like Durc that for a moment she saw her son in him. She wanted to believe he was Durc, and she ached to pick him up and hold him in her arms, and say his name. She closed her eyes and repressed the urge to call out to him, shaking with the effort.

When she opened her eyes again, Rydag was watching her with a knowing, ancient, and yearning look, as though he understood her, and knew that she understood him. As much as she wished it, Rydag was not Durc. He was no more Durc than she was Deegie; he was himself. Under control again, she took a deep breath.

"Would you like more words? More hand signs, Rydag?" she asked.

He nodded, emphatically.

"You remember 'mother' from last night…"

He answered by making the sign again that had so moved Nezzie… and her.

"Do you know this?" Ayla asked, making the greeting gesture. She could see him struggling with knowledge he almost knew. "It is greeting. It means 'good morning,' or 'hello.' This" – she demonstrated the gesture again with the variation she had used – "is when older person is speaking to younger."

He frowned, then made the gesture, then smiled at her with his startling grin. He made both signs, then thought again and made a third, and looked at her quizzically, not sure if he had really done anything.

"Yes, that is right, Rydag! I am woman, like mother, and that is way to greet mother. You do remember!"

Nezzie noticed Ayla and the boy together. He had caused her great distress a few times when he forgot himself and tried to do too much, so she was always aware of the child's location and activities. She was drawn toward the younger woman and the child, trying to observe and understand what they were doing. Ayla saw her, noted her expression of curiosity and concern, and called her over.

"I am showing Rydag language of Clan – mother's people," Ayla explained, "like word last night."

Rydag, with a big grin that showed his larger than usual teeth, made a deliberate gesture to Nezzie.

"What does that mean?" she asked, looking at Ayla.

"Rydag say, 'Good morning, Mother,'" the young woman explained.

"Good morning, Mother?" Nezzie made a motion that vaguely resembled the deliberate gesture Rydag had made. "That means 'Good morning, Mother'?"

"No. Sit here. I will show you. This" – Ayla made the sign – "means 'Good morning' and this way" – she made the variation – "means 'Good morning, Mother.' He might make same sign to me. That would mean 'motherly woman.' You would make this way" – Ayla made another variation of the hand sign – "to say, 'Good morning, child.' And this" – Ayla continued with still another variation – "to say 'Good morning, my son.' You see?"

Ayla went through all the variations again as Nezzie watched carefully. The woman, feeling a bit self-conscious, tried again. Though the signal lacked finesse, it was clear to both Ayla and Rydag that the gesture she was trying to make meant "Good morning, my son."

The boy, who was standing at her shoulder, reached thin arms around her neck. Nezzie hugged him, blinking hard to hold back a flood that threatened, and even Rydag's eyes were wet, which surprised Ayla.

Of all the members of Brun's clan, only her eyes had teared with emotion, though their feelings were just as strong. Her son could vocalize the same as she could; he was capable of full speech – her heart still ached when she remembered how he had called out after her when she was forced to leave – but Durc could shed no tears to express his sorrow. Like his Clan mother, Rydag could not speak, but when his eyes filled with love, they glistened with tears.

"I have never been able to talk to him before – that I knew for sure he understood," Nezzie said.

"Would you like more signs?" Ayla asked, gently.

The woman nodded, still holding the boy, not trusting herself to speak at the moment for fear her control would break. Ayla went through another set of signs and variations, with Nezzie and Rydag both concentrating, trying to grasp them. And then another. Nezzie's daughters, Latie and Rugie, and Tulie's youngest children, Brinan and his little sister Tusie, who were close to Rugie and Rydag in age, came to find out what was going on, then Fralie's seven-year-old son, Crisavec, joined them. Soon they were all caught up in what seemed to be a wonderful new game: talking with hands.

But unlike most games played by the children of the Camp, this was one in which Rydag excelled. Ayla couldn't teach him fast enough. She barely had to show him once, and before long he was adding the variations himself – the nuances and finer shades of meaning. She had a sense that it was all right there inside him, filled up and bursting to come out, needing only the smallest opening, and once released, there was no holding back.

It was all the more exciting because the children who were near his age were learning, too. For the first time in his life, Rydag could express himself fully, and he couldn't get enough of it. The youngsters he had grown up with easily accepted his ability to "speak" fluently in this new way. They had communicated with him before. They knew he was different, he had trouble talking, but they hadn't yet acquired the adult bias that assumed he was, therefore, lacking in intelligence. And Latie, as older sisters often do, had been translating his "gibberish" to the adult members of the Camp for years.

By the time they had all had enough of learning and went off to put the new game into serious play, Ayla noticed Rydag was correcting them and they turned to him for confirmation of the meaning of the hand signs and gestures. He had found a new place among his peers.

Still sitting beside Nezzie, Ayla watched them flashing silent signals to each other. She smiled, imagining what Iza would have thought of children of the Others speaking like the Clan, shouting and laughing at the same time. Somehow, Ayla thought, the old medicine woman would have understood.

"You must be right. That is his way to speak," Nezzie said, "I've never seen him so quick to learn anything. I didn't know flathe – What do you call them?"

"Clan. They say Clan. It means… family… the people humans. The Clan of the Cave Bear, people who honor Great Cave Bear; you say Mamutoi, Mammoth Hunters who honor Mother," Ayla replied.

"Clan… I didn't know they could talk like that, I didn't know anyone could say so much with hands. I've never seen Rydag so happy." The woman hesitated, and Ayla sensed she was trying to find a way to say something more. She waited to give her a chance to gather her thoughts. "I'm surprised you took to him so quickly," Nezzie continued. "Some people object because he's mixed, and most people are a little uncomfortable around him. But you seem to know him."

Ayla paused before she spoke, while she studied the older woman, not sure what to say. Then, making a decision, she said, "I knew someone like him once… my son. My son, Durc."

"Your son!" There was surprise in Nezzie's voice, but Ayla did not detect any sign of the revulsion that had been so apparent in Frebec's voice when he spoke of flatheads and Rydag the night before. "You had a mixed son? Where is he? What happened to him?"

Anguish darkened Ayla's face. She had kept thoughts of her son buried deep while she was alone in her valley, but seeing Rydag had awakened them. Nezzie's questions jolted painful memories and emotions to the surface, and caught her by surprise. Now she had to confront them.

Nezzie was as open and frank as the rest of her people, and her questions had come spontaneously, but she was not without sensitivity. "I'm sorry, Ayla. I should have thought…"

"Do not have concern, Nezzie," Ayla said, blinking to hold back tears. "I know questions come when I speak of son. It pains… to think of Durc."

"You don't have to talk about him."

"Sometime must talk about Durc." Ayla paused, then plunged in. "Durc is with Clan. When she die, Iza… my mother, like you with Rydag… say I go north, find my people. Not Clan, the Others. Durc is baby then. I do not go. Later, Durc is three years, Broud make me go. I not know where Others live, I not know where I will go, I cannot take Durc. I give to Uba… sister. She love Durc, take care of him. Her son now."

Ayla stopped, but Nezzie didn't know what to say. She would have liked to ask more questions, but didn't want to press when it was obviously such an ordeal for the young woman to speak of a son, whom she loved but had to leave behind. Ayla continued of her own accord.

"Three years since I see Durc. He is… six years now. Like Rydag?"

Nezzie nodded. "It is not yet seven years since Rydag was born."

Ayla paused, seemed to be deep in thought. Then she continued. "Durc is like Rydag, but not. Durc is like Clan in eyes, like me in mouth." She smiled wryly. "Should be other way. Durc make words, Durc could speak, but Clan does not. Better if Rydag speak, but he cannot. Durc is strong." Ayla's eyes took on a faraway look. "He run fast. He is best runner, some day racer, like Jondalar say." Her eyes filled with sadness when she looked up at Nezzie. "Rydag weak. From birth. Weak in…?" She put her hand to her chest, she didn't know the word.

"He has trouble breathing sometimes," Nezzie said.

"Trouble is not breathing. Trouble is blood… no… not blood… da-dump," she said, holding a fist to her chest. She was frustrated at not knowing the word.

"The heart. That's what Mamut says. He has a weak heart. How did you know that?"

"Iza was medicine woman, healer. Best medicine woman of Clan. She teach me like daughter. I am medicine woman."

Jondalar had said Ayla was a Healer, Nezzie recalled. She was surprised to learn that flatheads even thought about healing, but then she hadn't known they could talk either. And she had been around Rydag enough to know that even without full speech he was not the stupid animal that so many people believed. Even if she wasn't a Mamut, there was no reason Ayla couldn't know something about healing.

The two women looked up as a shadow fell across them. "Mamut wants to know if you would come and talk to him, Ayla," Danug said. Both of them had been so engrossed in conversation neither one had noticed the tall young man approaching. "Rydag is so excited with the new hand game you showed him," he continued. "Latie says he wants me to ask if you will teach me some of the signs, too."

"Yes. Yes. I teach you. I teach anyone."

"I want to learn more of your hand words, too," Nezzie said, as they both got up.

"In morning?" Ayla asked.

"Yes, tomorrow morning. But you haven't had anything to eat yet. Maybe tomorrow it would be better to have something to eat first," Nezzie said. "Come with me and I'll get you something, and for Mamut, too."

"I am hungry," Ayla said.

"So am I," Danug added.

"When aren't you hungry? Between you and Talut, I think you could eat a mammoth," Nezzie said with pride in her eyes for her great strapping son.

As the two women and Danug headed toward the earthlodge, the others seemed to take it as a cue to stop for a meal and followed them in. Outer clothes were removed in the entrance foyer and hung on pegs. It was a casual, everyday, morning meal with some people cooking at their own hearths and others gathering at the large first hearth that held the primary fireplace and several small ones. Some people ate cold leftover mammoth, others had meat or fish cooked with roots or greens in a soup thickened with roughly ground wild grains plucked from the grasses of the steppes. But whether they cooked at their own place or not, most people eventually wandered to the communal area to visit while they drank a hot tea before going outside again.

Ayla was sitting beside Mamut watching the activities with great interest. The level of noise of so many people talking and laughing together still surprised her, but she was becoming more accustomed to it. She was even more surprised at the ease with which the women moved among the men. There was no strict hierarchy, no order to the cooking or serving of food. They all seemed to serve themselves, except for the women and men who helped the youngest children.

Jondalar came over to them and lowered himself carefully to the grass mat beside Ayla while he balanced with both hands a watertight but handleless and somewhat flexible cup, woven out of bear grass in a chevron design of contrasting colors, filled with hot mint tea.

"You up early in morning," Ayla said.

"I didn't want to disturb you. You were sleeping so soundly."

"I wake when I think someone hurt, but Deegie tell me old woman… Crozie… always talk loud with Frebec."

"They were arguing so loud, I even heard them outside," Jondalar said. "Frebec may be a troublemaker, but I'm not so sure I blame him. That old woman squawks worse than a jay. How can anyone live with her?"

"I think someone hurt," Ayla said, thoughtfully.

Jondalar looked at her, puzzled. He didn't think she was repeating that she mistakenly thought someone was physically hurt.

"You are right, Ayla," Mamut said. "Old wounds that still pain."

"Deegie feels sorrow for Fralie." Ayla turned to Mamut, feeling comfortable about asking him questions, though she did not want to betray her ignorance generally. "What is Bride Price? Deegie said Tulie asked high Bride Price for her."

Mamut paused before answering, gathering his thoughts carefully because he wanted her to understand. Ayla watched the white-haired old man expectantly. "I could give you a simple answer, Ayla, but there is more to it than it seems. I have thought about it for many years. It is not easy to understand and explain yourself and your people, even when you are one of those whom others come to for answers." He closed his eyes in a frown of concentration. "You understand status, don't you?" he began.

"Yes," Ayla said. "In the Clan, leader has the most status, then chosen hunter, then other hunters. Mog-ur has high status, too, but is different. He is… man of spirit world."

"And the women?"

"Women have status of mate, but medicine woman has own status."

Ayla's comments surprised Jondalar. With all he had learned from her about flatheads, he still had difficulty believing they could understand a concept as complex as comparative ranking.

"I thought so," Mamut said, quietly, then proceeded to explain. "We revere the Mother, the maker and nurturer of all life. People, animals, plants, water, trees, rocks, earth, She gave birth, She created all of it. When we call upon the spirit of the mammoth, or the spirit of the deer, or the bison, to ask permission to hunt them, we know it is the Mother's Spirit that gave them life; Her Spirit that causes another mammoth, or deer, or bison to be born to replace the ones She gives us for food."

"We say it is the Mother's Gift of Life," Jondalar said, intrigued. He was interested in discovering how the customs of the Mamutoi compared with the customs of the Zelandonii.

"Mut, the Mother, has chosen women to show us how She has taken the spirit of life into Herself to create and bring forth new life to replace those She has called back," the old holy man continued. "Children learn about this as they grow up, from legends and stories and songs, but you are beyond that now, Ayla. We like to hear the stories even when we grow old, but you need to understand the current that moves them, and what lies beneath, so you can understand the reasons for many of our customs. With us, status depends upon one's mother, and Bride Price is the way we show value."

Ayla nodded, fascinated. Jondalar had tried to explain about the Mother, but Mamut made it seem so reasonable, so much easier to understand.

"When women and men decide to form a union, the man, and his Camp, give many gifts to the woman's mother and her Camp. The mother or the headwoman of the Camp sets the price – says how many gifts are required – for the daughter, or occasionally a woman may set her own price, but it depends on much more than her whim. No woman wants to be undervalued, but the price should not be so much that the man of her choice and his Camp can't afford or are unwilling to pay."

"Why payment for a woman?" Jondalar asked. "Doesn't that make her trade goods, like salt or flint or amber?"

"The value of a woman is much more. Bride Price is what a man pays for the privilege of living with a woman. A good Bride Price benefits everyone. It bestows a high status on the woman; tells everyone how highly she is thought of by the man who wants her, and by her own Camp. It honors his Camp, and lets them show they are successful and can afford to pay the price. It gives honor to the woman's Camp, shows them esteem and respect, and gives them something to compensate for losing her if she leaves, as some young women do, to join a new Camp or to live at the man's Camp. But most important, it helps them to pay a good Bride Price when one of their men wants a woman, so they can show their wealth.

"Children are born with their mother's status, so a high Bride Price benefits them. Though the Bride Price is paid in gifts, and some of the gifts are for the couple to start out their life together with, the real value is the status, the high regard, in which a woman is held by her own Camp and by all the other Camps, and the value she bestows on her mate, and her children."

Ayla was still puzzled, but Jondalar was nodding, beginning to understand. The specific and complex details were not the same, but the broad outlines of kinship relationships and values were not so different from those of his own people. "How is a woman's value known? To set a good Bride Price?" the Zelandonii man asked.

"Bride Price depends on many things. A man will always try to find a woman with the highest status he can afford because when he leaves his mother, he assumes the status of his mate, who is or will be a mother. A woman who has proven her motherhood has a higher value, so women with children are greatly desired. Men will often try to push the value of their prospective mate up because it is to their benefit; two men who are vying for a high-valued woman might combine their resources – if they can get along and she agrees – and push her Bride Price even higher.

"Sometimes one man will join with two women, especially sisters who don't want to be separated. Then he gets the status of the higher-ranked woman and is looked upon with favor, which gives a certain additional status. He is showing he is able to provide for two women and their future children. Twin girls are thought of as a special blessing, they are seldom separated."

"When my brother found a woman among the Sharamudoi, he had kinship ties with a woman named Tholie, who was Mamutoi. She once told me she was 'stolen,' though she agreed to it," Jondalar said.

"We trade with the Sharamudoi, but our customs are not the same. Tholie was a woman of high status. Losing her to others meant giving up someone who was not only valuable herself – and they paid a good Bride Price – but who would have taken the value she received from her mother and given it to her mate and her children, value that eventually would have been exchanged among all the Mamutoi. There was no way to compensate for that. It was lost to us, as though her value was stolen from us. But Tholie was in love, and determined to join with the young Sharamudoi, so to get around it, we allowed her to be 'stolen.'"

"Deegie say Fralie's mother made Bride Price low," Ayla said.

The old man shifted position. He could see where her question was leading, and it was not going to be easy to answer. Most people understood their customs intuitively and could not have explained as clearly as Mamut. Many in his position would have been reluctant to explain beliefs that would normally have been cloaked in ambiguous stories, fearing that such a forthright and detailed exposition of cultural values would strip them of their mystery and power. It even made him uncomfortable, but he had already drawn some conclusions and made some decisions about Ayla. He wanted her to grasp the concepts and understand their customs as quickly as possible.

"A mother can move to the hearth of any one of her children," he said. "If she does – and usually she won't until she gets old – most often it will be a daughter who still lives at the same Camp. Her mate usually moves with her, but he can go back to his mother's camp, or live with a sister if he wants. A man often feels closer to his mate's children, the children of his hearth, because he lives with them and trains them, but his sister's children are his heirs, and when he grows old he is their responsibility. Usually the elders are welcomed, but unfortunately, not always. Fralie is the only child Crozie has left, so where her daughter goes, she goes. Life has not been kind to Crozie, and she has not grown kindly with age. She grasps and clings and few men want to share a hearth with her. She had to keep lowering her daughter's Bride Price after Fralie's first man died, which rankles and adds to her bitterness."

Ayla nodded understanding, then frowned with concern. "Iza told me of old woman, live with Brun's clan before I am found. She came from other clan. Mate die, no children. She have no value, no status, but always have food, always place by fire. If Crozie not have Fralie, where she go?"

Mamut pondered the question a moment. He wanted to give Ayla a completely truthful answer. "Crozie would have a problem, Ayla. Usually someone who has no kin will be adopted by another hearth, but she is so disagreeable, there are not many who would take her. She could probably find enough to eat and a place to sleep at any Camp, but after a while they would make her leave, just as their Camp made them leave after Fralie's first man died."

The old shaman continued with a grimace. "Frebec isn't so agreeable, himself. His mother's status was very low, she had few accomplishments and little to offer except a taste for bouza, so he never had much to begin with. His Camp didn't want Crozie, and didn't care if he left. They refused to pay anything. That's why Fralie's Bride Price was so low. The only reason they are here is because of Nezzie. She convinced Talut to speak for them, so they were taken in. There are some here who are sorry."

Ayla nodded with understanding. It made the situation a little more clear. "Mamut, what…"

"Nuvie! Nuvie! O Mother! She's choking!" a woman suddenly screamed.

Several people were standing around while her three-year-old coughed and sputtered, and struggled to draw breath. Someone pounded the child on the back, but it didn't help. Others were standing around trying to offer advice, but they were at a loss as they watched the girl gasping to breathe, and turning blue. 6

Ayla pushed her way through the crowd and reached the child as she was losing consciousness. She picked the girl up, sat down and put her across her lap, then reached into her mouth with a finger to see if she could find the obstruction. When that proved unsuccessful, Ayla stood up, turned the child around and held her around the middle with one arm so that her head and arms hung down, and struck her sharply between the shoulder blades. Then, from behind, she put her arms around the limp toddler, and pulled in with a jerk.

Everyone was standing back, with held breaths, watching the woman who seemed to know what she was doing, in a life-and-death struggle to clear the blockage in the little girl's throat. The child had stopped breathing, though her heart was still beating. Ayla lay the child down and kneeled beside her. She saw a piece of clothing, the child's parka, and stuffed it under her neck to hold her head back and her mouth open. Then holding the small nose closed, the woman placed her mouth over the girl's, and pulled in her breath as hard as she could, creating a strong suction. She held the pressure until she was almost without breath herself.

Then suddenly, with a muffled pop, she felt an object fly into her mouth, and almost lodge in her own throat. Ayla lifted her mouth and spat out a piece of gristly bone with meat clinging to it. She took a deep gulp of air, flipped her hair back out of her way, and, covering the mouth of the still child with her mouth again, breathed her own life-giving breath into the quiet lungs. The small chest raised. She did it several more times.

Suddenly the child was coughing and sputtering again, and then she took a long, rasping breath of her own.

Ayla helped Nuvie to sit up as she started to breathe again, only then aware of Tronie sobbing her relief to see her daughter still alive.

Ayla pulled her parka on over her head, threw the hood back, and looked down the row of hearths. At the last one, the hearth of the Aurochs, she saw Deegie standing near the fireplace brushing her rich chestnut hair back and wrapping it into a bun while she talked to someone on a bed platform. Ayla and Deegie had become good friends in the past few days and usually went outside together in the morning. Poking an ivory hairpin – a long thin shaft carved from the tusk of a mammoth and polished smooth – into her hair, Deegie waved at Ayla and signaled, "Wait for me, I'll go with you."

Tronie was sitting on a bed at the hearth next to the Mammoth Hearth, nursing Hartal. She smiled at Ayla and motioned her over. Ayla walked into the area defined as the Reindeer Hearth, sat down beside her, then bent over to coo and tickle the baby. He let go for a moment, giggled and kicked his feet, then reached for his mother to suckle again.

"He knows you already, Ayla," Tronie said.

"Hartal is happy, healthy baby. Grows fast. Where is Nuvie?"

"Manuv took her outside earlier. He's such a help with her, I'm glad he came to live with us. Tornec has a sister he could have stayed with. The old and the young always seem to get along, but Manuv spends almost all his time with that little one, and he can't refuse her anything. Especially now, after we came so close to losing her." The young mother put the baby over her shoulder to pat his back, then turned to Ayla again. "I haven't really had a chance to talk to you alone. I'd like to thank you again. We are all so grateful… I was so afraid she was… I still have bad dreams. I didn't know what to do. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there." She choked up as tears came to her eyes.

"Tronie, do not speak. Is not necessary to thank. Is my. I don't know word. I have knowledge… is necessary… for me."

Ayla saw Deegie coming through the Hearth of the Crane and noticed that Fralie was watching her. There were deep shadows around her eyes, and she seemed more tired than she should be. Ayla had been observing her and thought she was far enough along in her pregnancy that she should not be suffering morning sickness any more, but Fralie was still vomiting regularly and not just in the morning. Ayla wished she could make a closer examination, but Frebec had created a big furor when she mentioned it. He claimed that because she stopped someone from choking didn't prove she knew anything about healing. He wasn't convinced, just because she said so, and he didn't want some strange woman giving Fralie bad advice. That gave Crozie something else to argue with him about. Finally, to stop their squabbling, Fralie declared she felt fine and didn't need to see Ayla.

Ayla smiled encouragingly at the besieged woman, then picking up an empty waterskin on the wag, walked with Deegie toward the entrance. As they passed through the Mammoth Hearth, and stepped into the Hearth of the Fox, Ranec looked up and watched them pass by. Ayla had the distinct feeling that he watched her all the way through the Lion Hearth and the cooking area until she reached the inner arch, and she had to restrain an urge to look back.

When they pushed back the outer drape, Ayla blinked her eyes at the unexpected brightness of an intense sun in a bold blue sky. It was one of those warm, gentle days of fall that came as a rare gift, to be held in memory against the season when vicious winds, raging storms, and biting cold would be the daily fare. Ayla smiled in appreciation and suddenly remembered, though she hadn't thought of it in years, that Uba had been born on a day like this that first fall after Brun's clan found her.

The earthlodge and the leveled area in front of it were carved out of a west-facing slope, about midway down. The view was expansive from the entrance, and she stood for a moment, looking out. The racing river glinted and sparkled as it murmured a liquid undertone to the interplay of sunlight and water, and across, in a distant haze, Ayla saw a similar escarpment. The broad swift river, gouging a channel through the vast open steppes, was flanked by ramparts of eroded earth.

From the rounded shoulder of the plateau above to the wide floodplain below, the fine loess soil was sculpted by deep gullies; the handiwork of rain, melting snow, and the outflow of the great glaciers to the north during the spring runoff. A few green larch and pine stood straight and stiff in their isolation, scattered sparsely among the recumbent tangle of leafless shrubs on the lower ground. Downstream, along the river's edge, the spikes of cattails mingled with reeds and sedges. Her view upstream was blocked by the bend in the river, but Whinney and Racer grazed within sight on the dry standing hay that covered the balance of the stark, spare landscape.

A spattering of dirt landed at Ayla's feet. She looked up, startled, into Jondalar's vivid blue eyes. Talut was beside him with a big grin on his face. She was surprised to see several more people on top of the dwelling.

"Come up, Ayla. I'll give you a hand," Jondalar said.

"Not now. Later. I just come out. Why you up there?"

"We're putting the bowl boats over the smoke holes," Talut explained.

"What?"

"Come on. I'll explain," Deegie said. "I'm ready to overflow."

The two young women walked together toward a nearby gully. Steps had been roughly cut into the steep side leading to several large, flat mammoth shoulder blades with holes cut in them braced over a deeper part of the dry gully. Ayla stepped out on one of the shoulder blades, untied the waist thong of her legged garment, lowered it, then bent down and squatted over the hole, beside Deegie, wondering again why she hadn't thought of the posture herself when she was having so much trouble with her clothes. It seemed so simple and obvious after she watched Deegie once. The contents of the night baskets were also thrown into the gully, as well as other refuse, all of which was washed away in the spring.

They climbed out and walked down to the river beside a broad gulch. A rivulet, whose source farther north was already frozen, trickled down the middle. When the season turned again, the trench would carry a raging torrent. The top sections of a few mammoth skulls were inverted and stacked near the bank along with some crude long-handled dippers, roughed out of leg bones.

The two women filled the mammoth skull basins with water dipped from the river, and from a pouch Ayla brought with her, she sprinkled withered petals – once the pale blue sprays of saponin-rich ceanothus flowers – into both their hands. Rubbing with wet hands created a foamy, slightly gritty washing substance which left a gentle perfume on clean hands and faces. Ayla snapped off a twig, chewed the broken end, and used it on her teeth, a habit she had picked up from Jondalar.

"What is bowl boat?" Ayla asked as they walked back carrying the waterproof stomach of a bison, bulging with fresh water, between them.

"We use them to cross the river, when it's not too rough. You start with a frame of bone and wood shaped like a bowl that will hold two or maybe three people, and cover it with a hide, usually aurochs, hair side out and well oiled. Megaceros antlers, with some trimming, make good paddles… for pushing it through the water," Deegie explained.

"Why bowl boats on top of lodge?"

"That's where we always put them when we aren't using them, but in winter we cover the smoke holes with them so rain and snow won't come in. They were tying them down through the holes so they won't blow away. But you have to leave a space for the smoke to get out, and be able to move it over, and shake it loose from inside if snow piles up."

As they walked together, Ayla was thinking how happy she was to know Deegie. Uba had been a sister and she loved her, but Uba was younger, and Iza's true daughter; there had always been the difference. Ayla had never known anyone her own age who seemed to understand everything she said, and with whom she had so much in common. They put the heavy waterskin down and stopped to rest for a while.

"Ayla, show me how to say 'I love you' with signs, so I can tell Branag when I see him again," Deegie asked.

"Clan has no sign like that," Ayla said.

"Don't they love each other? You make them sound so human when you talk about them, I thought they would."

"Yes, they love each other, but they are quiet… no, that is not right word."

"I think 'subtle' is the word you want," Deegie said.

"Subtle… about showing feelings. A mother might say, 'You fill me with happiness' to child," Ayla replied, showing Deegie the proper sign, "but woman would not be so open no, obvious?" She questioned her second choice of words and waited for Deegie's nod before continuing, "Obvious about feelings for man."

Deegie was intrigued. "What would she do? I had to let Branag know how I felt about him when I found out he'd been watching me at Summer Meetings, just as I'd been looking at him. If I couldn't have told him, I don't know what I would have done."

"A Clan woman does not say, she shows. Woman does things for man she loves, cooks food as he likes, makes favorite tea ready in morning when he wakes up. Makes clothes in special way – inner skin of fur wrap very soft, or warm foot-coverings with fur inside. Even better if woman can know what he wants before he asks. Shows she pays close attention to learn habits and moods, knows him, cares."

Deegie nodded. "That's a good way to tell someone you love him. It is nice to do special things for each other. But how does a woman know he loves her? What does a man do for a woman?"

"One time Goov put himself in danger to kill snow leopard that was frightening to Ovra because was prowling too close to cave. She know he did it for her even though he gave hide to Creb, and Iza made fur wrap for me," Ayla explained.

"That is subtle! I'm not sure if I would have understood." Deegie laughed. "How do you know he did it for her?"

"Ovra told me, later. I did not know then. I was young. Still learning. Hand signs not all of Clan language. Much more said in face, and eyes, and body. Way of walking, turning of head, tightening muscles of shoulders, if you know what means, says more than words. Took long time to learn language of Clan."

"I'm surprised, as fast as you've been learning Mamutoi! I can watch you. Every day you're better. I wish I had your gift for language."

"I am still not right. Many words I do not know, but I think of speaking words in Clan way of language. I listen to words and watch how face looks, feel how words sound and go together and see how body moves… and try to remember. When I show Rydag, and others, hand signs, I learn, too. I learn your language, more. I must learn, Deegie," Ayla added with a fervor that bespoke her earnestness.

"It isn't just a game for you, is it? Like the hand signs are for us. It's fun to think that we can go to the Summer Meeting and speak to each other without anyone else knowing it."

"I am happy everyone has fun and wants to know more. For Rydag. He has fun now, but is not a game for him."

"No, I don't suppose it is." They reached for the waterskin again, then Deegie stopped and looked at Ayla. "I couldn't understand why Nezzie wanted to keep him, at first. But then I got used to him, and grew to like him. Now he's just one of us, and I'd miss him if he wasn't here, but it never occurred to me before that he might want to talk. I didn't think he ever gave it a thought."

Jondalar stood at the entrance of the earthlodge watching the two young women deeply involved in conversation as they approached, pleased to see Ayla getting along so well. When he thought about it, it seemed rather amazing that of all the people they might have met up with, the one group they found had a child of mixed spirits in their midst and so was more willing than most would probably have been to accept her. He'd been right about one thing, though. Ayla didn't hesitate to tell anyone about her background.

Well, at least she hadn't told them about her son, he thought. It was one thing for a person like Nezzie to open her heart to an orphan, it was quite another to welcome a woman whose spirit had mingled with a flathead's, and who'd given birth to an abomination. There was always an underlying fear that it might happen again, and if she drew the wrong kind of spirits to her, they might spread to other women nearby.

Suddenly the tall handsome man flushed. Ayla doesn't think her son is an abomination, he thought, mortified. He had flinched with disgust when she first told him about her son, and she had been furious. He had never seen her so angry, but her son was her son, and she certainly felt no shame over him. She's right. Doni told me in a dream. Flatheads… the Clan… are children of the Mother, too. Look at Rydag. He's a lot brighter than I ever imagined one like him would be. He's a little different, but he's human, and very likable.

Jondalar had spent some time with the youngster and discovered how intelligent and mature he was, even to a certain wry wit, particularly when his difference or his weakness was mentioned. He had seen the adoration in Rydag's eyes every time the boy looked at Ayla. She had told him that boys of Rydag's age were closer to manhood in the Clan, more like Danug, but it was also true that his weakness might have matured him beyond his years.

She's right. I know she's right about them. But if she just wouldn't talk about them. It would be so much easier. No one would even know if she didn't tell them…

She thinks of them as her people, Jondalar, he chided himself, feeling his face heat again, angry at his own thoughts. How would you feel if someone told you not to talk about the people who raised and took care of you? If she's not ashamed of them, why should you be? It hasn't been so bad. Frebec's a troublemaker anyway. But she doesn't know how people can turn on you, and on anyone who's with you.

Maybe it's best that she doesn't know. Maybe it won't happen. She's already got most of this Camp talking like flatheads, including me.

After Jondalar had seen how eagerly nearly everyone wanted to learn the Clan way of communicating, he sat in on the impromptu lessons that seemed to spring up every time someone asked questions about it. He found himself caught up in the fun of the new game, flashing signals across a distance, making silent jokes, such as saying one thing and signing something else behind someone's back. He was surprised at the depth and the fullness of the silent speech.

"Jondalar, your face is red. What could you be thinking?" Deegie asked in a teasing tone when they reached the archway.

The question caught him off guard, reminded him of his shame, and he blushed deeper in his embarrassment. "I must have been too close to the fire," he mumbled, turning away.

Why does Jondalar say words that are not true? Ayla wondered, noticing that his forehead was furrowed in a frown and his rich blue eyes were deeply troubled before he averted them. He is not red from fire. He is red from feeling. Just when I think I am beginning to learn, he does something I don't understand. I watch him, I try to pay attention. Everything seems wonderful, then for no reason, suddenly he's angry: I can see that he's angry, but I can't see what makes him angry. It's like the games, saying one thing with words and another with signs. Like when he says nice words to Ranec, but his body says he's angry. Why does Ranec make him angry? And now, something bothers him, but he says fire makes him hot. What am I doing wrong? Why don't I understand him? Will I ever learn?

The three of them turned to go in and almost bumped into Talut coming out of the earthlodge.

"I was coming to look for you, Jondalar," the headman said. "I don't want to waste such a good day, and Wymez did some unplanned scouting on the way back. He says they passed a winter herd of bison. After we eat, we're going to hunt them. Would you like to join us?"

"Yes. I would!" Jondalar said with a big smile.

"I asked Mamut to feel the weather and Search for the herd. He says the signs are good, and the herd hasn't wandered far. He said something else, too, which I don't understand. He said, 'The way out is also the way in.' Can you make anything of that?"

"No but that's not unusual. Those Who Serve the Mother often say things I don't understand." Jondalar smiled. "They speak with shadows on their tongues."

"Sometimes I wonder if they know what they mean," Talut said.

"If we are going to hunt, I'd like to show you something that could be helpful." Jondalar led them to their sleeping platform in the Mammoth Hearth. He picked up a handful of lightweight spears and an implement that was unfamiliar to Talut. "I worked this out in Ayla's valley, and we've been hunting with it ever since."

Ayla stood back, watching, feeling an awful tension building up inside. She wanted desperately to be included, but she was not sure how these people felt about women hunting. Hunting had been the cause of great anguish for her in the past. Women of the Clan were forbidden to hunt or even to touch hunting weapons, but she had taught herself to use a sling in spite of the taboo and the punishment had been severe when she was found out. After, she had lived through it, she had even been allowed to hunt on a limited basis to appease her powerful totem who had protected her. But her hunting had been just one more reason for Broud to hate her and, ultimately, it contributed to her banishment.

Yet, hunting with her sling had increased her chances when she lived alone in the valley, and gave her the incentive and encouragement to expand on her ability. Ayla had survived because the skills she had learned as a woman of the Clan, and her own intelligence and courage, gave her the ability to take care of herself. But hunting had come to symbolize for her more than the security of depending on and being responsible for herself; it stood for the independence and freedom that were the natural result. She would not easily give it up.

"Ayla, why don't you get your spear-thrower, too," Jondalar said, then turned back to Talut. "I've got more power, but Ayla is more accurate than I am, she can show you what this can do better than I can. In fact, if you want to see a demonstration of accuracy, you ought to see her with a sling. I think her skill with it gives her an advantage with these."

Ayla let out her breath – she didn't know she had been holding it – and went to get her spear-thrower and spears while Jondalar was talking to Talut. It was still hard to believe how easily this man of the Others had accepted her desire and ability to hunt, and how naturally he spoke in praise of her skill. He seemed to assume that Talut and the Lion Camp would accept her hunting, too. She glanced at Deegie, wondering how a woman would feel.

"You ought to let Mother know if you are going to try a new weapon on the hunt, Talut. You know she'll want to see it, too," Deegie said. "I might as well get my spears and packboards out now. And a tent, we'll probably be gone overnight."

After breakfast, Talut motioned to Wymez and squatted down by an area of soft dirt near one of the smaller fireplaces in the cooking hearth, well lit by light coming in through the smoke hole. Stuck in the ground near the edge was an implement made from a leg bone of a deer. It was shaped like a knife or a tapered dagger, with a straight dull edge leading from the knee joint to a point. Holding it by the knob of the joint, Talut smoothed the dirt with the flat edge, then, shifting it, began to draw marks and lines on the level surface with the point. Several people gathered around.

"Wymez said he saw the bison not far from the three large outcrops to the northeast, near the tributary of the small river that empties upstream," the headman began, explaining as he drew a rough map of the region with the drawing knife.

Talut's map wasn't so much an approximate visual reproduction as a schematic drawing. It wasn't necessary to accurately depict the location. The people of the Lion Camp were familiar with their region and his drawing was no more than a mnemonic aid to remind them of a place they knew. It consisted of conventionalized marks and lines that represented landmarks or ideas that were understood.

His map did not show the route which the water took across the land; their perspective was not from such a bird's-eye view. He drew herringbone zigzag lines to indicate the river, and attached them to both sides of a straight line, to show a tributary. At the ground level of their open flat landscape, rivers were bodies of water, which sometimes joined.

They knew where the rivers came from and where they led, and that rivers could be followed to certain destinations, but so could other landmarks, and a rock outcrop was less likely to change. In a land that was so close to a glacier, yet subject to the seasonal changes of lower latitudes, ice and permafrost – ground that was permanently frozen – caused drastic alterations of the landscape. Except for the largest of them, the deluge of glacial runoff could change the course of a river from one season to the next as easily as the ice hill pingos of winter melted into the bogs of summer. The mammoth hunters conceived of their physical terrain as an interrelated whole in which rivers were only an element.

Neither did Talut conceive of drawing lines to scale to show the length of a river or trail in miles or paces. Such linear measures had little meaning. They understood distance not in terms of how far away a place was but how long it would take to get there, and that was better shown by a series of lines telling the number of days, or some other markings of number or time. Even then, a place might be more distant for some people than for others, or the same place might be farther away at one season than another because it took longer to travel to it. The distance traveled by the entire Camp was measured by the length of time it took the slowest. Talut's map was perfectly clear to the members of the Lion Camp, but Ayla watched with puzzled fascination.

"Wymez, tell me where they were," Talut said.

"On the south side of the tributary," Wymez replied, taking the bone drawing knife and adding some additional lines. "It's rocky, with steep outcrops, but the floodplain is wide."

"If they keep going upstream, there are not many outlets along that side," Tulie said.

"Mamut, what do you think?" Talut asked. "You said they haven't wandered far off."

The old shaman picked up the drawing knife, and paused for a moment with his eyes closed. "There is a stream that comes in, between the second and last outcrop," he said as he drew. "They will likely move that way, thinking it will lead out."

"I know the place!" Talut said. "If you follow it upstream, the floodplain narrows and then is hemmed in by steep rock. It's a good place to trap them. How many are there?"

Wymez took the drawing tool and drew several lines along the edge, hesitated, then added one more. "I saw that many, that I can say for certain," he said, stabbing the bone drawing knife in the dirt.

Tulie picked up the marking bone and added three more. "I saw those straggling behind, one seemed quite young, or perhaps it was weak."

Danug picked up the marker and added one more line. "It was a twin, I think. I saw another straggling. Did you see two, Deegie?"

"I don't recall."

"She only had eyes for Branag," Wymez said, with a gentle smile.

"That place is about half a day from here, isn't it?" Talut asked.

Wymez nodded. "Half a day, at a good pace."

"We should start out right away then." The headman paused, thoughtfully. "It's been some time since I've been there. I'd like to know the lay of the land. I wonder…"

"Someone willing to run could get there faster and scout it, then meet us on the way back," Tulie said, guessing what her brother was thinking.

"That's a long run…" Talut said, and glanced at Danug. The tall, gangly youth was about to speak up, but Ayla spoke first.

"That is not long run for horse. Horse runs fast. I could go on Whinney… but I do not know place," she said.

Talut looked surprised at first, then smiled broadly. "I could give you a map! Like this one," he said, pointing at the drawing on the ground. He looked around and spied a cast-off flake of broken ivory near the bone fuel pile, then pulled out his sharp flint knife. "Look, you go north until you reach the big stream." He began incising zigzag lines to indicate water. "There is a smaller one you have to cross first. Don't let it confuse you."

Ayla frowned. "I do not understand map," she said. "I not see map before."

Talut looked disappointed, and dropped the ivory scrap back on the pile.

"Couldn't someone go with her?" Jondalar suggested. "The horse can take two. I've ridden double with her."

Talut was smiling again. "That's a good idea! Who wants to go?"

"I'll go! I know the way," a voice called out, followed quickly by a second. "I know the way. I just came from there." Latie and Danug had both spoken up, and several others looked ready to.

Talut looked from one to the other, then shrugged his shoulders, holding out both hands, and turned to Ayla. "The choice is yours."

Ayla looked at the youth, nearly as tall as Jondalar, with red hair the color of Talut's, and the pale fuzz of a beginning beard. Then at the tall, thin girl, not quite a woman but getting close, with dark blond hair a shade or two lighter than Nezzie's. There was earnest hope in both sets of eyes. She didn't know which one to choose. Danug was nearly a man. She thought she ought to take him, but something about Latie reminded Ayla of herself, and she remembered the look of longing she had seen on the girl's face the first time Latie saw the horses.

"I think Whinney go faster if not too much weight. Danug is man," Ayla said, giving him a big, warm smile. "I think Latie better this time."

Danug nodded, looking flustered, and backed off, trying to find a way to deal with the sudden flush of mixed emotions that had unexpectedly overwhelmed him. He was sorely disappointed that Latie was chosen, but Ayla's dazzling smile when she called him a man had caused the blood to rush to his face and his heart to beat faster – and an embarrassing tightening in his loins.

Latie rushed to change into the warm, lightweight reindeer skins she wore for traveling, packed her haversack, added the food and waterbag Nezzie prepared for her, and was outside and ready to go before Ayla was dressed. She watched while Jondalar helped Ayla fasten the side basket panniers on Whinney with the harness arrangement she had devised. Ayla put the traveling food Nezzie gave her, along with water, in one basket on top of her other things, and took Latie's haversack and put it in the other carrier. Then, holding onto Whinney's mane, Ayla made a quick leap and was astride her back. Jondalar helped the girl up. Sitting in front of Ayla, Latie looked down at the people of her Camp from the back of the dun yellow horse, her eyes brimming with happiness.

Danug approached them, a little shyly, and handed Latie the broken flake of ivory. "Here, I finished the map Talut started, to make the place easier to find," he said.

"Oh, Danug. Thank you!" Latie said, and grabbed him around the neck to give him a hug.

"Yes. Thank you, Danug," Ayla said, smiling her heartpounding smile at him.

Danug's face turned almost as red as his hair. As the woman and the girl started up the slope on the back of the mare, he waved at them, his palm facing him in a "comeback" motion.

Jondalar, with one arm around the arched neck of the young horse, who was straining after them with his head raised and nose in the air, put his other arm around the young man's shoulder. "That was very nice of you. I know you wanted to go. I'm sure you'll be able to ride the horse another time." Danug just nodded. He wasn't exactly thinking of riding a horse at that moment.

Once they reached the steppes, Ayla signaled the horse with subtle pressures and body movements, and Whinney broke into a fast run, heading north. The ground blurred with motion beneath flying hooves, and Latie could hardly believe she was racing across the steppes on the back of a horse. She had smiled with elation when they started out, and it still lingered, though sometimes she closed her eyes and strained forward just to feel the wind in her face. She was exhilarated beyond description; she had never even dreamed anything could be so exciting.

The rest of the hunters followed behind them not long after they left. Everyone who was able and wanted to go went along. The Lion Hearth contributed three hunters. Latie was young and only recently allowed to join Talut and Danug. She was always eager to go, as her mother had been when she was younger, but Nezzie did not often accompany hunters now. She stayed to take care of Rugie and Rydag, and help watch other young children. She had not gone on many hunts since she took in Rydag.

The Fox Hearth had only two men, and both Wymez and Ranec hunted, but none from the Mammoth Hearth did, except for the visitors, Ayla and Jondalar. Mamut was too old.

Though he would like to have gone, Manuv stayed behind so as not to slow them down. Tronie stayed, too, with Nuvie and Hartal. Except for an occasional drive, where even the children could help, she no longer went along on hunting trips either. Tornec was the only hunter from the Reindeer Hearth, just as Frebec was the only hunter from the Hearth of the Crane. Fralie and Crozie stayed at the Camp with Crisavec and Tasher.

Tulie had almost always found a way to join hunting parties, even when she had small children, and the Aurochs Hearth was well represented. Besides the headwoman, Barzec, Deegie, and Druwez all went. Brinan tried his best to convince his mother to let him go, but he was left with Nezzie, along with his sister Tusie, placated with a promise that soon he would be old enough.

The hunters hiked up the slope together, and Talut set a fast pace once they reached the level grassland.

"I think the day is too good to waste, too," Nezzie said, putting her cup down firmly and speaking to the group which gathered around the outdoor cooking hearth, after the hunters left. They were sipping tea and finishing up the last of breakfast. "The grains are ripe and dry, and I've been wanting to go up and collect a last good day's worth. If we head toward that stand of stone pines by the little creek, we can collect the ripe pine nuts from the cones, too, if there's time. Does anyone else want to go?"

"I'm not sure if Fralie should walk so far," Crozie said.

"Oh, Mother," Fralie said. "A little walk will do me good, and once the weather turns bad, we'll all have to stay inside most of the time. That will come soon enough. I'd like to go, Nezzie."

"Well, I'd better go, then, to help you with the children," Crozie said, as if she was making a great sacrifice, although the idea of an outing sounded good to her.

Tronie wasn't reluctant to admit it. "What a good idea, Nezzie! I'm sure I can put Hartal in the back carrier, so I can carry Nuvie when she gets tired. There's nothing I'd like better than spending a day outside."

"I'll carry Nuvie. You don't have to carry two," Manuv said. "But I think I'll get the pine nuts first, and leave the grain collecting to the rest of you."

"I think I'll join you, too, Nezzie," Mamut said. "Perhaps Rydag wouldn't mind keeping an old man company, and maybe teach me more of Ayla's signs, since he's so good at them."

"You very good at signs, Mamut," Rydag signaled. "You learn signs fast. Maybe you teach me."

"Maybe we can teach each other," Mamut signed back.

Nezzie smiled. The old man had never treated the child of mixed spirits any differently from the other children of the Camp, except to show extra consideration for his weakness, and he had often helped her with Rydag. There seemed to be a special closeness between them, and she suspected Mamut was coming along to keep the boy occupied while the rest were working. She knew he would also make sure no one exerted inadvertent pressure on Rydag to move faster than he should. He could slow down if he saw the youngster straining too hard, and blame his advanced age. He had done so before.

When everyone was gathered outside the earthlodge, with collecting and burden baskets and leather tarps, waterbags, and food for a midday meal, Mamut brought out a small figure of a mature woman carved out of ivory and stuck it in the ground in front of the entrance. He said some words understood by no one but him, and made evocative gestures. Everyone in the Camp would be gone, the lodge would be empty, and he was invoking the Spirit of Mut, the Great Mother, to guard and protect the dwelling in their absence.

No one would violate the prohibition against entering signified by the figure of the Mother at the door. Short of absolute need, no one would dare risk the consequences which everyone believed would result. Even if the need was dire – if someone was hurt, or caught in a blizzard and needed shelter – immediate actions would be taken to placate a possibly angry and vengeful protector. Compensation over and above the value of anything used would be paid by the person, or the family or Camp of the person, as promptly as possible. Donations and gifts would be given to members of the Mammoth Hearth to appease the Great Mother Spirit with entreaties and explanations, and promises of future good deeds or compensatory activities. Mamut's action was more effective than any lock.

When Mamut turned from the entrance, Nezzie hoisted a carrying basket to her back and adjusted the tumpline across her forehead, picked up Rydag and settled him on her ample hip to carry him up the slope, then, herding Rugie, Tusie, and Brinan ahead of her, started up to the steppes. The others followed suit, and soon the other half of the Camp was hiking across the open grasslands for a day of work harvesting the grains and seeds that had been sown and offered to them by the Great Mother Earth. The work and the contribution to their livelihood of the gatherers was counted no less valuable than the work of the hunters, but neither was only work. Companionship and sharing made the work fun.

Ayla and Latie splashed through one shallow creek, but Ayla slowed the horse before they came to the next somewhat larger watercourse.

"Is this stream we follow?" Ayla asked.

"I don't think so," Latie said, then consulted the marks on the piece of ivory. "No. See here, that's the little one we crossed. We cross this one, too. Turn and follow the next one upstream."

"Not look deep here. Is good place to cross?"

Latie looked up and down the stream. "There's a better place up a ways. We only have to take off boots and roll up leggings there."

They headed upstream, but when they reached the wide shallow crossing where water foamed around jutting rocks, Ayla didn't stop. She turned Whinney into the water and let the horse pick her way across. On the other side, the mare took off in a gallop, and Latie was smiling again.

"We didn't even get wet!" the girl exclaimed. "Only a few splashes."

When they reached the next stream and turned east, Ayla slowed the pace for a while to give Whinney a rest, but even the slower gait of the horse was so much faster than a human could walk, or consistently run, they covered ground quickly. The terrain changed as they continued, getting rougher and gradually gaining in elevation. When Ayla stopped and pointed to a stream coming in on the opposite side, forming a wide V with the one they had been following, Latie was surprised. She didn't expect to see the tributary so soon, but Ayla had noticed turbulence and was expecting it. Three large granite outcrops could be seen from where they stood, a jagged scarp face across the waterway, and two more on their side, upstream and offset at an angle.

They followed their branch of the stream and noticed that it angled off toward the outcrops, and when they approached the first, saw that the watercourse flowed between them. Some distance after they passed the outcrops that flanked the stream, Ayla noticed several dark shaggy bison grazing on still green sedge and reeds near the water. She pointed, and whispered in Latie's ear.

"Don't talk loud. Look."

"There they are!" Latie said in a muffled squeal, trying to keep her excitement under control.

Ayla turned her head back and forth, then wet a finger and held it up, testing the wind direction. "Wind blows to us from bison. Good. Do not want to disturb until ready to hunt. Bison know horses. On Whinney, we get closer, but not too much."

Ayla guided the horse, carefully skirting the animals, to check farther upstream, and when she was satisfied, came back the same way. A big old cow lifted her head and eyed them, chewing her cud. The tip of her left horn was broken off. The woman slowed and let Whinney assume movement that was natural to her while her passengers held their breaths. The mare stopped and lowered her head to eat a few blades of grass. Horses did not usually graze if they were nervous, and the action seemed to reassure the bison. She went back to grazing as well. Ayla slipped around the small herd as fast as she could, then galloped Whinney downstream. When they reached previously noted landmarks, they turned south again. They stopped for water for Whinney and themselves after they crossed the next stream, and then continued south.

The hunting party was just beyond the first small creek when Jondalar noticed Racer pulling against his halter toward a cloud of dust moving in their direction. He tapped Talut and pointed. The headman looked ahead and saw Ayla and Latie galloping toward them on Whinney. The hunters did not have long to wait before the horse and riders pounded into their midst, and pranced to a stop. The smile on Latie's face was ecstatic, her eyes sparkled, and her cheeks were flushed with excitement as Talut helped her down. Then Ayla threw her leg over and slid off, as everyone crowded around.

"Couldn't you find it?" Talut asked, voicing the concern everyone felt. One other person mentioned it at almost the same time, but in a different tone.

"Couldn't even find it. I didn't think running ahead on a horse would do any good," Frebec sneered.

Latie responded to him with surprised anger. "What do you mean, 'couldn't even find it'? We found the place. We even saw the bison!"

"Are you trying to say you have already been there and back?" he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Where are the bison now?" Wymez asked the daughter of his sister, ignoring Frebec and blunting his snide remark.

Latie marched to the basket pannier on Whinney's left side and took out the piece of marked ivory. Then taking the flint knife from the sheath at her waist, she sat on the ground and began scratching some additional marks on the map.

"The south fork goes between two outcrops, here," she said. Wymez and Talut sat down beside her and nodded agreement, while Ayla and several others stood behind and around her. "The bison were on the other side of the outcrops, where the floodplain opens out and there is still some green feed near the water. I saw four little ones…" She cut four short parallel marks as she spoke.

"I think, five," Ayla corrected.

Latie looked up at Ayla, and nodded, then added one more short mark. "You were right, Danug, about the twins. And they're young ones. And seven cows." She looked up at Ayla again for confirmation. The woman nodded agreement, and Latie added seven more parallel lines, slightly longer than the first ones. "…only four with young, I think." She pondered a moment. "There were more, farther off."

"Five young males," Ayla added. "And two, three others. Not sure. Maybe more we not see."

Latie made five slightly larger lines, somewhat apart from the first ones, then added three more lines, between the two sets, making them a bit smaller again. She cut a little Y tick in the last mark in the line to indicate she was done, that that was the full number of bison they had counted. Her counting marks had cut over some of the other marks that had been etched into the ivory earlier, but it didn't matter. They had already served their purpose.

Talut took the ivory flake from Latie and studied it. Then he looked at Ayla. "You didn't happen to notice which way they were heading, did you?"

"Upstream, I think. We go around herd, careful, not disturb. No tracks other side, grass not chewed," Ayla said.

Talut nodded and paused, obviously thinking. "You said you went around them. Did you go far upstream?"

"Yes."

"The way I remember it, the floodplain narrows until it disappears, and high rocks close in the stream, and there is no way out. Is that right?"

"Yes… but, maybe way out."

"A way out?"

"Before high rocks, side is steep, trees, thick brush with thorns, but near rocks is dry streambed. Like steep path. Is way out, I think," she said.

Talut frowned, looked at Wymez, and Tulie, then laughed out loud. "The way out is also the way in! That's what Mamut said!"

Wymez looked puzzled for only a moment, then he slowly grinned his understanding. Tulie looked at both of them. Then a dawning look of comprehension appeared on her face.

"Of course! We can go in that way, build a surround to trap them, then go around the other way and drive them into it," Tulie said, making it clear to everyone else as well. "Someone will have to watch and make sure they don't get wind of us and go back downstream while we're building it."

"That sounds like a good job for Danug and Latie," Talut said.

"I think Druwez can help them," Barzec added, "and if you think more help is needed, I'll go."

"Good!" Talut said. "Why don't you go with them, Barzec, and follow the river upstream. I know a faster way to get to the back end. We'll cut across from here. You keep them hemmed in, and as soon as we get the trap built, we'll come back around to help chase them in it."

7

The dry streambed was a swath of dried mud and rock cutting through a steep, wooded, brush-entangled hillside. It led to a level but narrow floodplain beside a rushing stream that gushed out between constraining rock in a series of rapids and low waterfalls. Once Ayla had gone down on foot, she went back for the horses. Both Whinney and Racer were accustomed to the steep path that had led to her cave in the valley, and made their way down with little trouble.

She removed the basket harness from Whinney so she could graze freely. But Jondalar worried about removing Racer's halter since neither he nor Ayla had much control over him without it, and he was getting old enough to be fractious when the mood struck him. Since it didn't keep him from grazing, she agreed to keep it on him, though she would have preferred to have given him complete freedom. It made her realize the difference between Racer and his dam. Whinney had always come and gone as she wished, but Ayla had spent all her time with the horse – she'd had no one else. Racer had Whinney, but less contact with her. Perhaps she, or Jondalar, ought to spend more time with him, and try to teach him, she thought.

The corrallike surround was already under construction by the time Ayla went to help. The fence was made of whatever materials they could find, boulders, bones, trees and branches, which were built up and intertwined together. The rich and varied animal life of the cold plains constantly renewed itself, and the old bones scattered across the landscape were often swept away by vagrant streams into jumbled piles. A quick search downstream had revealed a pile of bones a short distance away, and the hunters were hauling large leg bones and rib cages toward the focus of activity: an area near the bottom of the dry stream which they were fencing in. The fence needed to be sturdy enough to contain the herd of bison, but was not intended to be a permanent structure. It would only be used once, and in any case, was not likely to last beyond spring when the rushing stream bloated into a raging torrent.

Ayla watched Talut swinging an enormous axe with a gigantic stone head, as though it were a toy. He had doffed his shirt and was sweating profusely as he chopped his way through a stand of straight young saplings, felling each tree with two or three blows. Tornec and Frebec, who were carrying them away, couldn't keep up with him. Tulie was supervising their placement. She had an axe nearly as large as her brother's, and handled it with as much ease, breaking a tree in half, or shattering a bone to make it fit. Few men could match the strength of the headwoman.

"Talut!" Deegie called. She was carrying the front end of a whole curved mammoth tusk that was over fifteen feet in length. Wymez and Ranec supported the middle and back. "We found some mammoth bones. Will you break this tusk?"

The huge red-haired giant grinned. "This old behemoth must have lived a good long life!" he said, straddling the tusk when they put it down.

Talut's enormous muscles bunched as he lifted the sledgehammer-sized axe, and the air resounded with the blows as splinters and flakes of ivory flew in all directions. Ayla was fascinated just watching the powerful man wield the massive tool with such skillful ease. But the feat was even more astounding to Jondalar, for a reason he never considered. Ayla was more accustomed to seeing men execute prodigious feats of muscular strength. Though she had exceeded them in height, the men of the Clan were massively muscled and extraordinarily robust. Even the women had a pronounced rugged strength, and the life Ayla had led as she grew up, expected to perform the tasks of a Clan woman, had caused her to develop unusually strong muscles for her thinner bones.

Talut put the axe down, hoisted the back half of the tusk to his shoulder, and started toward the enclosure they were building. Ayla picked the huge axe up to move it, and knew she could not have handled it. Even Jondalar found it too heavy to use with skill. It was a tool uniquely suited to the big headman. The two of them lifted the other half-tusk to their shoulders and followed Talut.

Jondalar and Wymez stayed to help wedge the cumbersome pieces of ivory in with boulders; they would present a substantial barrier to any charging bison. Ayla went with Deegie and Ranec to get more bones. Jondalar turned to watch them go, and struggled to swallow his anger when he saw the dark man move beside Ayla and make a comment that caused her and Deegie to laugh. Talut and Wymez both noticed the red, glowering face of their young and handsome visitor, and a significant look passed between them, but neither commented.

The final element of the surround was a gate. A sturdy young tree, stripped of its branches, was positioned upright at one side of an opening in the fence. A hole was dug for the base, and a mound of stones was piled up around it for support. It was reinforced by tying it with thongs to the heavy mammoth tusks. The gate itself was constructed of leg bones, branches, and mammoth ribs lashed firmly to cross-pieces of saplings chopped to size. Then with several people holding the gate in place, one end was attached in many places to the upright pole using a crossed-over lashing that allowed it to swing on its leather hinges. Boulders and heavy bones were piled near the other end, ready to be shoved in front of the gate after it was closed.

It was afternoon, the sun still high, when all was in readiness. With everyone working together, it had taken a surprisingly short time to build the trap. They gathered around Talut, and lunched on the dried traveling food they brought with them, while they made further plans.

"The difficult part will be to get them through the gate," Talut said. "If we get one in, the others will probably follow. But if they get beyond the gate and start milling around in this small space at the end, they'll head for the water. That stream is rough here, and some may not make it, but that won't do us any good. We'll lose them. The best we could hope for would be to find a drowned carcass downstream."

"Then we'll have to block them," Tulie said. "Not let them get past the trap."

"How?" Deegie asked.

"We could build another fence," Frebec suggested.

"How you know bison will not turn into water, when they come to fence?" Ayla asked.

Frebec eyed her with a patronizing expression, but Talut spoke before he did.

"That's a good question, Ayla. Besides, there's not much material left around here to build fences," Talut said.

Frebec gave her a dark look of anger. He felt as though she had made him appear stupid.

"Whatever we can erect to block the way would be helpful, but I think someone needs to be there to drive them in. It could be a dangerous stand," Talut continued.

"I'll stand. That's a good place to use this spear-thrower I've been telling you about," Jondalar said, showing the unusual implement. "It not only gives a spear more distance, it gives it more force than a hand-thrown spear. With a true aim, one spear can kill instantly, at close range."

"Is that true?" Talut said, looking with renewed interest at Jondalar. "We'll have to talk more about it later, but yes, if you want, you can take a stand. I think I will, too."

"And so will I," Ranec said.

Jondalar frowned at the smiling dark man. He wasn't sure he wanted to make a stand with the man so obviously interested in Ayla.

"I shall stand here, too," Tulie said. "But rather than try to build another fence, we should make separate piles for each of us to stand behind."

"Or to run behind," Ranec quipped. "What makes you think they won't end up chasing us?"

"Speaking of chasing, now that we've decided what to do once they get here, how are we going to get them here?" Talut said, glancing at the placement of the sun in the sky. "It's a long walk around to get behind them from here. We may not have enough day left."

Ayla had been listening with more than interest. She recalled the men of the Clan making hunting plans, and especially after she began hunting with her sling, often wished she could have been included. This time, she was one of the hunters. She noted that Talut had listened to her earlier comment, and recalled how readily they had accepted her offer to scout ahead. It encouraged her to make another suggestion.

"Whinney is good chaser," she said. "I chase herds many times on Whinney. Can go around bison, find Barzec and others, chase bison here soon. You wait, chase into trap."

Talut looked at Ayla, then at the hunters, and then back at Ayla. "Are you sure you can do that?"

"Yes."

"What about getting around them?" Tulie asked. "They have probably sensed we are here by now, and the only reason they aren't gone is that Barzec and the youngsters are keeping them penned in. Who knows how long they will be able to hold them? Won't you chase them back the wrong way if you go toward them from this direction?"

"I not think so. Horse not disturb bison much, but I go around if you want. Horse goes faster than you can walk," Ayla said.

"She's right! No one can deny that. Ayla could go around on the horse faster than we could walk it," Talut said, then he frowned in concentration. "I think we should let her do it her way, Tulie. Does it really matter if this hunt succeeds? It would help, particularly if this turns out to be a long, hard winter, and it would give us more variety, but we really do have enough stored. We wouldn't suffer if we lost this one."

"That's true, but we've gone to a lot of work."

"It wouldn't be the first time that we went to a lot of work and came up empty-handed." Talut paused again. "The worst thing that can happen is that we lose the herd, and if it works, we could be feasting on bison before it's dark and be on our way back in the morning."

Tulie nodded. "All right, Talut. We'll try it your way."

"You mean Ayla's way. Go ahead, Ayla. See if you can bring those bison here."

Ayla smiled, and whistled for Whinney. The mare neighed and galloped toward her, followed by Racer. "Jondalar, keep Racer here," she said, and sprinted toward the horse.

"Don't forget your spear-thrower," he called.

She stopped to grab it and some spears from the holder on the side of her pack, then with a practiced easy motion, she leaped onto the horse's back, and was off. For a while, Jondalar had his hands full with the young horse that didn't like being kept from joining his dam in an exciting run. It was just as well; it didn't give Jondalar time to notice the look on Ranec's face as he watched Ayla go.

The woman, bareback on the horse, rode hard along the floodplain beside the tumbling, boisterous stream, which wound along a sinuous corridor hemmed in by steep rolling hills on both sides. Naked brush screened by dry standing hay clung to the hillsides and crouched low on the windy crests, softening the craggy face of the land, but hidden beneath the windblown bess topsoil that filled in the cracks was a stony heart. Exposed projections of bedrock studding the slopes revealed the essential granite character of the region, dominated by lofty knolls which rose to the bare rock summits of the prominent outcrops.

Ayla slowed when she neared the area where she had seen the bison earlier in the day, but they were gone. They had sensed, or heard, the building activity and reversed their direction. She saw the animals just as she was moving into the shadow of one of the outcrops cast by the afternoon sun, and, just beyond the small herd, she saw Barzec standing near what appeared to be a small cairn.

Greener grass amid the bare slender trees near the water had coaxed the bison into the narrow valley, but once they moved past the twin outcrops that flanked the stream, there was no exit other than the way in. Barzec and the younger hunters had seen the bison strung out along the stream, still stopping to graze now and then, but steadily moving out. They had chased them back in, but that stopped them only temporarily, and caused them to bunch together and move with more determination when they tried to leave the valley the next time. Determination and frustration could lead to stampede.

The four had been sent to keep the animals from leaving, but they knew they'd never stop a stampede. They couldn't keep chasing them in. It took too much effort to keep it up and Barzec didn't want to start them stampeding in the other direction before the trap was ready, either. The pile of stones Barzec was standing near when Ayla first saw him was stacked around a sturdy branch. A piece of clothing was fastened to it and was flapping in the wind. Then she noticed several more stone piles supporting upright branches or bones, spaced at fairly close intervals between the outcrop and the water, and from each a sleeping fur or a piece of clothing or a tent covering had been hung. They had even used small trees and bushes, anything from which they could drape something that would move in the wind.

The bison were nervously eying the strange apparitions, not sure how threatening they were. They didn't want to go back the way they had come, but they didn't want to go forward, either. Sporadically a bison would move toward one of the things, then back off when it flapped. They were stalled, effectively being kept exactly where Barzec wanted them. Ayla was impressed with the clever idea.

She edged Whinney close to the outcrop, trying to work her way around the bison slowly, so as not to upset the delicate balance. She noticed the old cow with the broken horn edging forward. She didn't like being held in, and looked ready to make a break.

Barzec saw Ayla, looked behind him for the rest of the hunters, then looked back at her with a frown. After all their efforts, he didn't want her chasing the bison the wrong way. Latie moved up beside him, and they spoke quietly, but he still watched the woman and the horse with apprehension for the long moments it took her to reach them.

"Where are the others?" Barzec asked.

"They are waiting," Ayla said.

"What are they waiting for? We can't keep these bison here forever!"

"They wait for us to chase bison."

"How can we chase them? There's not enough of us! They're getting ready to break out as it is. I'm not sure how much longer we can keep them here, much less chase them back in. We'd have to get them to stampede."

"Whinney will chase," Ayla said.

"The horse is going to chase them!"

"She chase before, but better if you chase, too."

Danug and Druwez, who had been spread out watching the herd and throwing stones at the occasional animal that dared the flapping sentinels, moved closer to hear. They were no less amazed than Barzec, but their lessened vigilance opened an opportunity and ended the conversation.

Out of the corner of her eye, Ayla saw a huge young bull bolt, followed by several more. In a moment, all would be lost as the pent-up herd broke free. She wheeled Whinney around, dropped her spear and spear-thrower, and went after him, grabbing the flapping tunic from the branch on her way.

She raced straight for the animal, leaning over, waving the tunic at him. The bison dodged, trying to go around. Whinney wheeled again as Ayla snapped the leather in the young bull's face. His next diverting move turned him back toward the narrow valley, and into the path of the animals that had followed his lead, with Whinney and Ayla, snapping the leather tunic, right behind him.

Another animal broke away, but Ayla managed to turn her around, too. Whinney seemed to know almost before the bison did which one would try next, but it was as much the woman's unconscious signals to the horse as the mare's intuitive sense that put her in the way of the shaggy animal. Ayla's training of Whinney had not been a conscious effort in the beginning. The first time she got on the horse's back had been sheer impulse, and no thought of controlling or directing entered her mind. It had happened gradually, as mutual understanding grew, and the control was exerted by tension of her begs and subtle shifts of her body. Though, eventually, she did begin to apply it purposefully, there was always an additional element of interaction between the woman and the horse, and they often moved as one, as though they shared one mind.

The instant Ayla moved, the others recognized the situation, and rushed to stop the herd. Ayla had chased herding animals with Whinney in the past, but she would not have been able to turn the bison around without help. The large humpbacked beasts were much harder to control than she imagined they would be. They'd been held back, and she had never tried to drive animals in a direction they didn't want to go. It was almost as though some instinctual sense warned them of the trap waiting for them.

Danug rushed to Ayla's aid, to help turn back the ones who first bolted, though she was concentrating so intensely on stopping the young bull that she hardly noticed him at first. Latie saw one of the twin calves break, and, pulling the branch out of the pile of stones, she dashed to block its path. She whacked it on the nose, and harried it back, while Barzec and Druwez descended upon a cow with stones and a flapping fur. Finally their determined efforts turned the incipient stampede around. The old cow with the broken horn and a few others managed to break out, but most of the bison pounded along the floodplain of the small river, heading upstream.

They breathed a little easier once the small herd was beyond the granite outcrops, but they would have to keep them going. Ayla stopped only long enough to slide off the horse, pick up her spear and spear-thrower, and leap back on.

Talut had just taken a drink from his waterbag when he thought he heard a faint rumbling, like low rolling thunder. He cocked his head downriver and listened a few moments, not expecting to hear anything so soon, not sure that he expected to hear them at all. He lay face down and put his ear to the ground.

"They're coming!" he shouted, jumping up.

All of them scrambled to find their spears, and rushed to the places they had decided to take. Frebec, Wymez, Tornec, and Deegie spread out along the steep slope at one side, ready to fall in behind and block the gate closed. Tulie was nearest the open gate on the opposite side, ready to slam it shut once the bison were inside the pen.

In the space between the corral-like enclosure and the tumultuous stream, Ranec was a few paces away from Tulie, and Jondalar a few more paces away, almost at the edge of the water. Talut chose a place somewhat forward of the visitor, and stood on the wet bank. Each person had a piece of leather or clothing to flap at the oncoming animals with hopes of turning them aside, but each also lifted a spear, juggled it slightly, then gripped it firmly around the shaft, and held it in readiness – except for Jondalar.

The narrow, flat, wooden implement he held in his right hand was about the length of his arm from elbow to fingertips, and grooved down the center. It had a hook as a backstop at one end, and two leather loops on both sides for his fingers at the front end. He held it horizontally, and fitted the feathered butt end of a light spear shaft, tipped with a long, tapered, wickedly sharp bone point, against the hook at the back of the spear-thrower. Holding the spear lightly in place with his first two fingers that were through the loops, he tucked his leather flap in his belt, and picked up a second spear with his left hand, ready to slap it in place for a second cast.

Then they waited. No one spoke, and in the still expectancy small sounds boomed large. Birds warbled and called. Wind rustled dry branches. Water cascading over rocks splashed and gurgled. Flies droned. The drumming of running hooves grew louder.

Then bawling and grunting and huffing could be heard above the approaching thunder, and human voices shouting. Eyes strained to see signs of the first bison at the bend downstream, but when it came, it wasn't just one. Suddenly, the entire herd was pounding around the turn, and the huge, shaggy, dark brown animals with long black deadly horns were stampeding straight for them.

Each person braced, waiting for the assault. In the lead was the big young bull who had almost bolted to safety before the long chase began. He saw the enclosure ahead and veered around, toward the water – and the hunters standing in his path.

Ayla, close on the heels of the small herd, had been holding her own spear-thrower loosely as they were chasing the animals, but as they neared the last turn, she shifted it into position, not knowing what to expect. She saw the bull veer… and head straight for Jondalar. Other bison were following.

Talut ran toward the animal, flapping a tunic at him, but the thick-maned bison had had his fill of flapping things, and would not be deterred. Without a second thought, Ayla leaned forward, and urged Whinney ahead at full speed. Dodging around and past other running bison, she closed on the big bull and hurled her spear, just as Jondalar was casting his. A third spear was thrown at the same time.

The mare clattered past the hunters, splashing Talut as her hooves hit the edge of the water. Ayla slowed and halted, then quickly turned back. By then, it was over. The big bison was on the ground. The ones behind him slowed, and those nearest the slope had no other place to go than into the surround. After the first went through the opening, the others followed with little prodding. Tulie followed the last straggler pushing the gate, and the moment it was closed, Tornec and Deegie rolled a boulder against it. Wymez and Frebec lashed it to well-secured uprights while Tulie shoved another boulder beside the first.

Ayla slid off Whinney, still a little shaken. Jondalar was kneeling beside the bull with Talut and Ranec.

"Jondalar's spear went in the side of the neck, and through the throat. I think it would have killed this bull by itself, but your spear could have done it, too, Ayla. I didn't even see you coming," Talut said, just a trifle awed by her feat. "Your spear went in deep, right through his ribs."

"But it was a dangerous thing to do, Ayla. You could have gotten hurt," Jondalar said. He sounded angry, but it was reaction from the fear he felt for her when he realized what she had done. Then he looked at Talut and pointed to a third spear. "Whose spear is this? It was well thrown, landed deep in the chest. It would have stopped him, too."

"That's Ranec's spear," Talut said.

Jondalar turned to the dark-skinned man, and each took the measure of the other. Differences they might have, and rivalries might put them at odds, but they were first human, men who shared a beautiful, but harsh, primeval world and knew that survival depended upon each other.

"I owe you my thanks," Jondalar said. "If my spear had missed, I would be thanking you for my life."

"Only if Ayla's had missed, too. That bison has been thrice killed. It didn't stand a chance going against you. It seems you are meant to live. You are fortunate, my friend; the Mother must favor you. Are you as lucky in everything?" Ranec said, then looked at Ayla with eyes full of admiration, and more.

Unlike Talut, Ranec had seen her coming. Careless of the danger of long sharp horns, her hair flying, her eyes full of terror and anger, controlling the horse as though it were an extension of herself, she was like an avenging spirit, or like every mother of every creature who had ever defended her own. It seemed not to matter that both horse and she could easily have been gored. It was almost as though she was a Spirit of the Mother, who could control the bison as easily as she controlled the horse. Ranec had never seen anything like her. She was everything he'd ever desired: beautiful, strong, fearless, caring, protective. She was all woman.

Jondalar saw how Ranec looked at her, and his gut wrenched. How could Ayla help but see it? How could she not respond? He feared he might lose Ayla to the exciting dark man, and he didn't know what to do about it. Clenching his teeth, his forehead knotted with anger and frustration, he turned away, trying to hide his feelings.

He'd seen men and women react as he was doing, and had felt pity for them, and a bit scornful. It was the behavior of a child, an inexperienced child lacking knowledge and wisdom in the ways of the world. He thought he was beyond that. Ranec had acted to save his life, and he was a man. Could he blame him for being attracted to Ayla? Didn't she have the right to make her own choice? He hated himself for feeling the way he did, but he couldn't help it. Jondalar yanked his spear out of the bison and walked away.

The slaughter had already begun. From behind the safety of the fence the hunters threw spears at the lowing, bawling, confused animals milling around inside the surround-trap. Ayla climbed up and found a convenient place to hang on, and watched Ranec hurl a spear with force and precision. A huge cow staggered and fell to its knees. Druwez threw another at the same bison, and from another direction – she wasn't sure who threw it – came yet another. The humpbacked shaggy beast slumped down, and its massive low-slung head collapsed on its knees. Spear-throwers gave no advantage here, she realized. Their method was quite efficient with hand-thrown spears.

Suddenly a bull charged the fence, crashing into it with the force of tons. Wood splintered, lashings were torn loose, uprights were dislodged. Ayla could feel the fence shaking and jumped down, but it didn't stop. The bison's horns were caught! He was shaking the entire structure in his efforts to break loose. Ayla thought it would break apart.

Talut climbed the unsteady gate, and with one blow from his huge axe, cracked open the skull of the mighty beast. Blood spurted up in his face, and brains spilled out. The bison sagged and, his horns still caught, pulled the weakened gate and Talut down with him.

The big headman stepped nimbly off the falling structure as it reached the ground, then walked a few paces and delivered another skull-crushing blow to the last bison still standing. The gate had served its purpose.

"Now comes the work," Deegie said, gesturing toward the space surrounded by the makeshift fence. Fallen animals were scattered around like hummocks of dark brown wool. She walked to the first, pulled her razor-sharp flint knife from the sheath, and straddling the head, slit its throat. Blood spurted bright red from the jugular, then slowed and pooled dark crimson around the mouth and nose. It seeped slowly into the ground in a widening circle, staining the dun earth black.

"Talut!" Deegie called when she reached the next mound of shaggy fur. The long spear shaft sticking out of its side still shuddered. "Come put this one out of its pain, but try to save some of the brains this time. I want to use them." Talut quickly dispatched the suffering animal.

Then came the bloody job of gutting, skinning, and butchering. Ayla joined Deegie, and helped her roll a big cow over to bare its tender underside. Jondalar walked toward them, but Ranec was closer, and got there first. Jondalar watched, wondering if they would need help or if a fourth would just get in the way.

Starting at the anus, they slit the stomach to the throat, cutting the milk-filled udders away. Ayla grabbed one side and Ranec the other, to tear open the rib cage. They cracked it apart, then with Deegie almost climbing inside the still warm cavity, they pulled out the internal organs – stomach, intestines, heart, liver. It was done quickly, so the intestinal gases, which would soon start bloating the carcass, would not taint the meat. Next, they started on the hide.

It was obvious they needed no help. Jondalar saw Latie and Danug struggling with the rib cage of a smaller animal. He nudged Latie aside, and with both hands tore it open with one powerful angry rip. But butchering was hard work, and by the time they were ready to skin, the effort had taken the edge off his anger.

Ayla was not unfamiliar with the process; she had done it alone, many times. The hide was not cut off so much as it was stripped off. Once it was cut loose from around the legs, it separated rather easily from the muscle, and it was more efficient and cleaner to fist it loose from inside or to pull it off. Where a ligament was attached and it was easier to cut, they used a special skinning knife with a bone handle and a flint blade sharp on both edges but rounded and dull at the tip, so as not to pierce the skin. Ayla was so accustomed to using handheld knives and tools she felt awkward using a hafted blade, though she could already tell she would have better control and leverage once she got used to it.

The tendons from legs and back were stripped out; sinew was put to a wide range of uses from sewing thread to snares. The hide would become leather or fur. The long shaggy hair was made into rope and cordage of various sizes, and netting for fishing, or trapping birds, or small animals in their season. All the brains were saved, also several of the hooves, to be boiled up with bones and scraps of hide for glue. The huge horns, which could span as much as six feet, were prized. The solid ends that extended for a third of their length could be used as levers, pegs, punches, wedges, daggers. The hollow portion with the solid distal end removed became conical tubes used to blow up fires, or funnels to fill skin bags with liquids or powders or seeds, and to empty them again. A central section, with some of the solid part left intact for a bottom, could serve as a drinking cup. Narrow transverse cuts could make buckles, bracelets, or retaining rings.

The noses and tongues of the bison were saved – choice delicacies along with livers – then the carcasses were cut into seven pieces: two hindquarters, two forequarters, the mid-section halved, and the huge neck. The intestines, stomachs, and bladders were washed and robbed in the hides. Later they would be blown up with air, to keep them from shrinking, and then used for cooking or storage containers for fats and liquids, or floats for fishing nets. Every part of the animal was used, but not every part of every animal was taken; only the choicest or most useful. Only so much as could be carried.

Jondalar had taken Racer partway up the steep path and, to the young horse's distress, tied him securely to a tree to keep him out of the way, and out of danger. Whinney had found him as soon the bison were penned and Ayla let her go. Jondalar went to get him after he finished helping Latie and Danug with the first bison, but Racer was skittish around all the dead animals. Whinney didn't like it either, but she was more accustomed to it. Ayla saw them coming, and noticed Barzec and Druwez walking downstream again, and it occurred to her that in the rush to get the bison turned and chased into the trap, their packs had been left behind. She went after them.

"Barzec, you go back for packs?" she asked.

He smiled at her. "Yes. And the spare clothes. We left in such a hurry… not that I'm sorry. If you hadn't turned them when you did, we would have lost them for sure. That was quite a trick you did with that horse. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it, but I'm worried about leaving everything back there. All these dead bison are going to draw every meat-eating animal around. I saw wolf tracks while we were waiting, and they looked fresh. Wolves love to chew up leather when they find it. Wolverines will, too, and be nasty about it, but wolves will do it for fun."

"I can go for packs and clothes on horse," Ayla said.

"I didn't think of that! After we're through, there will be plenty to feed on, but I don't want to leave anything out that I don't want them to have."

"We hid the packs, remember?" Druwez said. "She'll never find them."

"That's true," Barzec said. "I guess we'll have to go ourselves."

"Druwez know where to find?" Ayla asked.

The boy looked at Ayla, and nodded.

Ayla smiled. "You want come on horse with me?"

The boy's face split in a wide grin. "Can I?"

She looked over at Jondalar, and caught his eye. Then beckoned him to come with the horses. He hurried over.

"I'm going to take Druwez and go get the packs and things they left behind when we started chasing," Ayla said, speaking Zelandonii. "I'll let Racer come, too. A good run might settle him down. Horses don't like dead things. It was hard for Whinney in the beginning, too. You were right about keeping the halter on him, but I've ought to start thinking about teaching him to be like Whinney."

Jondalar smiled. "It's a good idea, but how do you do it?"

Ayla frowned. "I'm not sure. Whinney does things for me because she wants to, because we're good friends, but I don't know about Racer. He likes you, Jondalar. Maybe he would do things for you. I think we both need to try."

"I'm willing," he said. "Someday I'd like to be able to ride on his back the way you ride on Whinney."

"I would like that, too, Jondalar," she said, remembering, with the warm feeling of love she'd felt even then, how she had once hoped that if the blond man of the Others grew to have feeling for Whinney's colt, it might encourage him to stay in her valley, with her. That was why she had asked him to name the foal.

Barzec had been waiting while the two strangers spoke in the language he didn't understand, getting a bit impatient. Finally he said, "Well, if you are going to get them, I'll go back and help with the bison."

"Wait a moment. I'll help Druwez up, and go with you," Jondalar said.

They both helped him up, and stood watching them go.

Shadows were already getting long by the time they returned, and both hurried to help. Later, as she was washing out long tubes of intestines at the edge of the small river, Ayla recalled skinning and butchering animals with the women of the Clan. Suddenly she realized this was the first time she had ever hunted as an accepted member of a hunting group.

Even when she was young, she had wanted to go with the men, though she knew women were forbidden to hunt. But the men were held in such high esteem for their prowess, and they made it seem so exciting, that she would daydream about herself as a hunter, especially when she wanted to escape from an unpleasant or difficult situation. That was the innocent beginning that led to situations far more difficult than she ever imagined. After she was allowed to hunt with a sling, though other hunting was still taboo, she had often quietly paid attention when the men were discussing hunting strategy. The men of the Clan did almost nothing but hunt – except discuss hunting, make hunting weapons, and engage in hunting rituals. The Clan women skinned and butchered the animals, prepared the hides for clothing and bedding, preserved and cooked the meat, in addition to making containers, cordage, mats, and various household objects, and gathering vegetable products for food, medicine, and other uses.

Brun's clan had had almost the same number of people as the Lion Camp, but the hunters had seldom killed more than one or two animals at a time. Consequently, they had to hunt often. At this time of year, the Clan hunters were out almost every day to get as much as they could stored ahead for the coming winter. Since she arrived, this was the first time anyone of the Lion Camp had hunted and though she wondered, no one else seemed worried about it. Ayla paused to look at the men and women skinning and butchering a small herd. With two or three people working together on each animal, the work was accomplished far more quickly than Ayla had thought possible. It made her think about the differences between them and the Clan.

The Mamutoi women hunted; that meant, Ayla thought, there were more hunters. It was true that nine of the hunters were male and only four were female – women with children seldom hunted – but it made a difference. They could hunt more effectively with more hunters, just as they could process and butcher more efficiently with everyone working together. It made sense, but she felt there was more involved, some essential point she was missing, some fundamental meaning to be drawn. The Mamutoi had a different way of thinking, too. They were not so rigid, so bound by rules of what was considered proper, and what had been done before. There was a blurring of roles, the behavior of women and men was not so strictly defined. It seemed to depend more on personal inclination, and what worked best.

Jondalar had told her that among his people no one was forbidden to hunt and, though hunting was important and most people did hunt, at least when they were young, no one was required to hunt. Apparently the Mamutoi had similar customs. He had tried to explain that people might have other skills and abilities that were equally worthwhile, and used himself as an example. After he had learned to knap the flint, and had developed a reputation for quality workmanship, he could trade his tools and points for anything he needed. It wasn't necessary for him to hunt at all, unless he wanted to.

But Ayla still didn't quite understand. What kind of manhood ceremony did they have if it didn't matter whether a man hunted or not? Men of the Clan would have been lost if they hadn't believed it was essential for them to hunt. A boy didn't become a man until he made his first major kill. Then she thought about Creb. He had never hunted. He couldn't hunt, he was missing an eye, and an arm, and he was lame. He had been the greatest Mog-ur, the greatest holy man of the Clan, but he had never made his kill, never had a manhood ceremony. In his own heart, he wasn't a man. But she knew he was.

Though it was already dusk by the time they were through, none of the blood-splattered hunters hesitated to strip off clothes and head for the stream. The women washed somewhat upstream of the men, but they stayed in sight of each other. Rolled hides and split carcasses had been stacked together and several fires bit around them to keep four-legged predators and scavengers away. Driftwood, deadfall, and the green wood used in the construction of the fence were piled nearby. A joint was roasting on a spit over one of them, and several low tents were spaced around it.

The temperature dropped quickly as darkness engulfed them. Ayla was glad for the mismatched and ill-fitting garments that had been loaned to her by Tulie and Deegie while her outfit, which she had washed to remove the bloodstains, was drying by a fire along with several others. She spent some time with the horses, making sure they were comfortable and settling down. Whinney stayed just within the edge of light from the fire where the meat was roasting, but as far away as she could from the carcasses waiting to be transported back to the earthlodge, and from the pile of scraps beyond the pale guarded by fire, from which snarls and yaps could be heard occasionally.

After the hunters ate their fill of bison, browned and crisp outside and rare near the bone, they built up the fire and sat around it sipping hot herbal tea, and talking.

"You should have seen her turn that herd," Barzec was saying. "I don't know how much longer we could have held them. They were getting more and more nervous, and I was certain we'd lost them once that bull bolted."

"I think we have Ayla to thank for the success of this hunt," Talut said.

Ayla blushed at the unaccustomed praise, but shyness accounted for only part of it. The acceptance of her and appreciation of her skills and abilities implied by the praise made her glow with warmth. She had longed for such acceptance all her life.

"And think what a story it will make at a Summer Meeting!" Talut added.

The conversation paused. Talut picked up a dry branch, a piece of deadfall that had lain so long on the ground the bark hung loosely around it like old and weathered skin. He cracked it in two across his knee and put both pieces in the fire. A geyser of sparks erupted, lighting the faces of the people sitting close together around the flames.

"Hunts are not always so lucky. Do you remember the time we almost got the white bison?" Tulie asked. "What a shame that it got away."

"That one must have been favored. I was sure we had it. Have you ever seen a white bison?" Barzec asked Jondalar.

"I've heard of them, and I've seen a hide," Jondalar replied. "White animals are held sacred among the Zelandonii."

"The foxes and rabbits, too?" Deegie asked.

"Yes, but not as much. Even ptarmigan are, when they are white. We believe it means they have been touched by Doni, so the ones that are born white, and stay white all year, are more sacred," Jondalar explained.

"The white ones have special meaning for us, too. That's why the Hearth of the Crane has such high status… usually," Tulie said, glancing at Frebec with a touch of disdain. "The great northern crane is white, and birds are the special messengers of Mut. And white mammoths have special powers."

"I'll never forget the white mammoth hunt," Talut said. Expectant looks encouraged him to continue. "Everyone was excited when the scout reported seeing her. It's the highest honor of all for the Mother to give us a white she-mammoth, and since it was the first hunt of a Summer Meeting, it would mean good buck for everyone, if we could get her," he explained to the visitors.

"All the hunters who wanted to go on the hunt had to undergo ordeals of purification and fasting to make sure we were acceptable, and the Mammoth Hearth imposed taboos on us, even afterward, but we all wanted to be chosen. I was young, not much older than Danug, but I was big like he is. Maybe that's why I was picked, and I was one who got a spear in her. Like the bison that went after you, Jondalar, no one knows whose spear killed her. I think the Mother didn't want any one person or one Camp to get too much honor. The white mammoth was everyone's. It was better that way. No envy or resentment."

"I've heard of a race of white bears that live far north," Frebec said, not wanting to be left out of the discussion. Perhaps no one person or Camp could take full credit for killing the white mammoth, but that didn't preclude all envy or resentment. Anyone chosen to go on it gained more status from that one hunt than Frebec was born with.

"I've heard of them, too," Danug said. "When I was staying at the flint mine, Sungaea visitors came to trade for flint. One woman was a storyteller, a good storyteller. She told about the World Mother, and the mushroom men who follow the sun at night, and many different animals. She told us about the white bear. They live on the ice, she said, and eat only animals from the sea, but they are said to be mild-mannered, like the huge cave bear who eats no meat. Not like the brown bear. They are vicious." Danug didn't notice the irritated look Frebec gave him. He hadn't meant to interrupt, he was just pleased to join in with something to say.

"Men of Clan come back from hunt once and tell of white rhinoceros," Ayla said. Frebec was still irritated and scowled at her.

"Yes, the white are rare," Ranec said, "but the black are special, too." He was sitting back from the fire a bit and his face in shadow could hardly be seen, except for his white teeth and the roguish gleam in his eyes.

"You're rare, all right, and more than happy to bet every woman at Summer Meeting, who wants to find out, know just how rare you are," Deegie remarked.

Ranec laughed. "Deegie, can I help it if the Mother's own are so curious? You wouldn't want me to disappoint anyone, would you? But I wasn't talking about me. I was thinking about black cats."

"Black cats?" Deegie asked.

"Wymez, I have a vague memory of a large black cat," he said, turning to the man with whom he shared a hearth. "Do you know anything about that?"

"It must have made a very strong impression on you. I didn't think you remembered," Wymez said. "You were hardly more than a baby, but your mother did scream. You had wandered away, and just when she saw you, she saw this big black cat, like a snow leopard, only black, leaping out of a tree. I think she thought it was going for you, but either her scream scared it off, or that wasn't its intention. It just kept on going, but she ran for you, and it was a long time before she let you out of her sight again."

"Were there many black ones like that where you were?" Talut asked.

"Not too many, but they were around. They stayed in forests and were night hunters, so they were hard to see."

"It would be as rare as the white ones here, wouldn't it? Bison are dark, and some mammoths, but they aren't really black. Black is special. How many black animals are there?" Ranec said.

"Today, when I go with Druwez, we see black wolf," Ayla said. "Not ever see black wolf before."

"Was it really black? Or just dark?" Ranec asked, very interested.

"Black. Lighter on belly, but black. Lone wolf, I think," Ayla added. "I do not see other tracks. In pack, would be… low status. Leave, maybe, find other lone wolf, make new pack."

"Low status? How do you know so much about wolves?" Frebec asked. There was a hint of derision in his voice, as though he didn't want to believe her, but there was obvious interest, also.

"When I learn to hunt, I hunt only meat eaters. Only with sling. I watch close, long time. I learn about wolves. Once I see white wolf in pack. Other wolves not like her. She leave. Other wolves not like wrong color wolf."

"It was a black wolf," Druwez said, wanting to defend Ayla, especially after the exciting ride on the horse. "I saw it, too. I wasn't even sure at first, but it was a wolf, and it was black. And I think it was alone."

"Speaking of wolves, we should keep watch tonight. If there is a black wolf around, that's all the more reason," Talut said. "We can trade off, but someone ought to be awake and watching all night."

"We should get some rest," Tulie added, getting up. "We have a long hike tomorrow."

"I'll watch first," Jondalar said, "When I get tired, I can wake someone."

"You can wake me," Talut said. Jondalar nodded.

"I watch, too," Ayla said.

"Why don't you watch with Jondalar? It's a good idea to have a partner to watch with. You can keep each other awake."

8

"It was cold last night. This meat is starting to freeze," Deegie said, lashing a hindquarter to a packboard.

"That's good," Tulie said, "but there's more than we can carry. We will have to leave some."

"Can't we build a cairn over it with the rocks from the fence?" Latie asked.

"We can, and we probably should, Latie. It's a good idea," Tulie said, preparing a load for herself that was so huge Ayla wondered how even she, as strong as she was, could carry it. "But we may not get back for it until spring, if the weather turns. If it was closer to the lodge, it would be better. Animals don't come around as much, and we could watch it, but out here in the open if something like a cave lion, or even a determined wolverine, really wants the meat, it will find a way to break in."

"Can't we pour water over it to freeze it solid? That would keep animals out. It's hard to break into a frozen cairn even with picks and mattocks," Deegie said.

"It would keep animals out, yes, but how do you keep the sun out, Deegie?" Tornec asked. "You can't be sure it will stay cold. It's too early in the season."

Ayla was listening, and watching the pile of bison parts dwindle as everyone packed as much as they could carry. She wasn't used to surplus, to having so much that one could pick and choose and take only the best. There had always been plenty of food to eat when she lived with the Clan, and more than enough hides for clothing, bedding, and other uses, but little was wasted. She wasn't sure how much would be left, but so much had already been thrown into the heap of scraps that it bothered her to think of leaving more, and it was obvious that no one else wanted to, either.

She noticed Danug pick up Tulie's axe and, wielding it as easily as the woman, chop a log in two and add it to the last fire left burning. She walked over to him.

"Danug," she said quietly. "Would help me?"

"Um… ah… yes," he stammered bashfully, feeling his face turn red. Her voice was so low and rich and her unusual accent was so exotic. She had caught him by surprise; he hadn't seen her coming, and standing close to the beautiful woman inexplicably flustered him.

"I need… two poles," Ayla said, holding up two fingers. "Young trees downstream. You cut for me?"

"Ah… sure. I'll cut down a couple of trees for you."

As they walked toward the bend in the small river, Danug felt more relaxed, but he kept glancing down at the blond head of the woman who walked at his side and just a half-step ahead. She selected two straight young alders of approximately the same width, and after Danug chopped them down, she directed him to strip off the branches and cut the tips so that they were of equal length. By then most of the big strapping youth's bashfulness had eased.

"What are you going to do with these?" Danug asked.

"I will show you," she said, then with a loud, imperative whistle, she called Whinney. The mare galloped toward her. Ayla had outfitted her earlier in harness and panniers in preparation for leaving. Though Danug thought it looked odd to see a leather blanket across the horse's back, and a pair of baskets tied to her sides with thongs, he noticed it didn't seem to bother the animal or slow her down.

"How do you get her to do that?" Danug asked.

"Do what?"

"Come to you when you whistle."

Ayla frowned, thinking. "I am not sure, Danug. Until Baby come, I am alone in valley with Whinney. She is only friend I know. She grow up with me, and we learn… each other."

"Is it true that you can talk to her?"

"We learn each other, Danug. Whinney not talk like you talk. I learn… her signs… her signals. She learn mine."

"You mean like Rydag's signs?"

"A little. Animals, people, all have signals, even you, Danug. You say words, signals say more. You speak when you not know you speak."

Danug frowned. He wasn't sure he liked the drift of the conversation. "I don't understand," he said, looking aside.

"Now we talk," Ayla continued. "Words not say, but signals say… you want ride horse. Is right?"

"Well… ah… yes, I'd like to."

"So… you ride horse."

"Do you mean it? Can I really have a ride on the horse? Like Latie and Druwez did?"

Ayla smiled. "Come here. Need big stone to help you get on first time."

Ayla stroked and patted Whinney, and talked to her in the unique language that had developed naturally between them: the combination of Clan signs and words, nonsense sounds she had invented with her son and imbued with meaning, and animal sounds which she mimicked perfectly. She told Whinney that Danug wanted a ride, and to make it exciting but not dangerous. The young man had learned some of the Clan signs that Ayla was teaching Rydag and the Camp, and was surprised that he could make out the meaning of a few that were part of her communication with the horse, but that only filled him with more awe. She did talk to the horse, but like Mamut when he was invoking spirits, she used a mystical, powerful, esoteric language.

Whether the horse understood explicitly or not, she did understand from Ayla's actions that something special was expected when the woman helped the tall young man on her back. To Whinney, he felt like the man she had come to know and trust. His long legs hung down low, and there was no sense of direction or control.

"Hold onto mane," Ayla instructed. "When you want to go, lean forward little. When you want slow or stop, sit up."

"You mean you're not going to ride with me?" Danug said, a touch of fear quaking his voice.

"Not need me," she said, then gave Whinney's flank a slap.

Whinney broke away with a sudden burst of speed. Danug jerked backward, then clutching her mane to pull forward, wrapped his arms around her neck and hung on for dear life. But when Ayla rode, leaning forward was a signal to go faster. The sturdy horse of the cold plains surged ahead down the level floodplain, which had by now become quite familiar, leaping logs and brush and avoiding exposed, jagged rock and occasional trees.

At first, Danug was so petrified he could only keep his eyes squeezed shut and hang on. But after he realized he hadn't fallen off, though he could feel the mare's powerful muscles as he bounced with her stride, he opened his eyes a slit. His heart beat with excitement as he watched trees and brush and the ground below pass by in a blur of speed. Still holding on, he lifted his head up to look around.

He could hardly believe how far he had come. The large outcrops flanking the stream were just ahead! Vaguely, he heard a shrill whistle far behind him, and immediately noticed a difference in the horse's pace. Whinney burst beyond the guarding rocks then, slowing only slightly, turned around in a wide circle and headed back. Though still hanging on, Danug was less fearful now. He wanted to see where they were going, and assumed a somewhat more upright position, which Whinney interpreted as a signal to slow a little.

The grin on Danug's face as the horse approached made Ayla think of Talut, especially when he was pleased with himself. She could see the man in the boy. Whinney pranced to a stop, and Ayla led her to the rock so Danug could get down. He was so ecstatic he could hardly speak, but he could not stop smiling. He had never considered riding fast on the back of a horse – it was beyond his imagination – and the experience went beyond his wildest expectations. He would never forget it.

His grin made Ayla smile every time she glanced at him. She attached the poles to Whinney's harness and when they returned to the campsite, he was still grinning.

"What's wrong with you?" Latie asked. "Why are you smiling like that?"

"I rode the horse," Danug answered. Latie nodded and smiled.

Nearly everything that could be taken away from the hunting site had been lashed to packboards, or wrapped in skins ready to be swung hammocklike from stout poles carried across the shoulders of two people. There were still haunches and rolled hides left, but not as much as Ayla thought there might be. As with hunting and butchering, more could be taken back to the winter camp when everyone worked together.

Several people had noticed that Ayla was not preparing a load to carry back, and wondered where she had gone, but when Jondalar saw her return with Whinney dragging the poles, he knew what she had in mind. She rearranged the poles so that the thicker ends were crossed just above the basket panniers across the mare's withers and fastened to the harness, and the narrow ends angled out behind the horse and rested easily on the ground. Then between the two poles, she attached a makeshift platform made out of the tent covering, using branches for support. The people stopped to watch her, but it wasn't until she began transferring the balance of the bison parts to the travois that anyone guessed its purpose. She also filled up the panniers, and put the last of it on a packboard to carry herself. When she was through, much to everyone's surprise, there was nothing left in the stack.

Tulie looked at Ayla and the horse, with the travois and panniers, obviously impressed. "I never thought of using a horse to carry a load," she said. "In fact, it never occurred to me to use a horse for anything except food – until now."

Talut threw dirt on the fire, stirred it around to make sure it was out. Then he hoisted his heavy packboard to his back, drew his haversack over his left shoulder, picked up his spear, and started out. The rest of the hunters followed him. Jondalar had wondered ever since he first met the Mamutoi why they made their packs to be worn over only one shoulder. As he adjusted his packboard to fit comfortably across his back, and pulled his haversack over his shoulder, he suddenly understood. It allowed them to carry fully loaded packboards on their backs. They must carry large quantities often, he thought.

Whinney walked behind Ayla, her head close to the woman's shoulder. Jondalar, leading Racer by the halter, walked beside her. Talut fell back and walked just in front of them, and they exchanged a few words while they hiked. As people trudged along under their heavy loads, Ayla noticed an occasional glance in the direction of her and the horse.

After a while, Talut began humming a rhythmic tune under his breath. Soon, he was vocalizing sounds in time with their steps:

"Hus-na, dus-na, teesh-na, keesh-na.

Pec-na, sec-na, ha-na-nya.

Hus-na, dus-na, teesh-na, keesh-na.

Pec-na, sec-na, ha-na-nya!"

The rest of the group joined in, repeating the syllables and the tone. Then, with a mischievous grin, Talut, keeping the same tones and pace, looked at Deegie and changed to words.

"What is pretty Deegie wishing?

Branag, Branag, share my bed.

Where is pretty Deegie going?

Home to empty furs instead."

Deegie blushed, but smiled, while everyone chuckled knowingly. When Talut repeated the first question, the rest of the group joined in on the answer, and after the second, they sang out the reply. Then they joined Talut in singing the refrain.

"Hus-na, dus-na, teesh-na, keesh-na,

Pec-na, sec-na, ha-na-nya!"

They repeated it several times, then Talut improvised another verse.

"How does Wymez spend the winter?

Making tools and wanting fun.

How does Wymez spend the summer?

Making up for having none!"

Everyone laughed, except Ranec. He roared. When the verse was repeated by the group, the usually undemonstrative Wymez turned red at the gentle jab. The toolmaker's habit of taking advantage of the Summer Meetings to compensate for his essentially celibate winter life was well known.

Jondalar was enjoying the teasing and joking as much as the others. It was just the kind of thing his people might do. But at first, Ayla didn't quite understand the situation, or the humor, especially when she noticed Deegie's embarrassment. Then she saw it was done with good-natured smiling and laughter, and the jibes were taken in good grace. She was beginning to understand verbal humor, and the laughter itself was contagious. She, too, smiled at the verse directed at Wymez.

Talut started the refrain of measured syllables again when everyone quieted down. Everyone joined him, anticipating now.

"Hus-na, dus-na, teesh-na, keesh-na,

Pec-na, sec-na, ha-na-nya!"

Talut looked at Ayla, then, with a smug grin, began:

"Who wants Ayla's warm affection?

Two would like to share her furs.

Who will be the rare selection?

Black or white the choice is hers."

It pleased Ayla to be included in the joking, and though she wasn't sure if she completely understood the meaning of the verse, she flushed with warmth because it was about her. Thinking about the previous night's conversation, she thought the rare black and white must refer to Ranec and Jondalar. Ranec's delighted laughter confirmed her suspicion, but Jondalar's strained smile bothered her. He wasn't enjoying the joking now.

Barzec then picked up the refrain, and even Ayla's untrained ear detected a fine and distinctive quality in the timbre and tone of his voice. He, too, smiled at Ayla, signaling who would be the subject of his teasing verse.

"How will Ayla choose a color?

Black is rare but so is white.

How will Ayla choose a lover?

Two can warm her furs at night!"

Barzec glanced at Tulie, while everyone repeated his verse, and she rewarded him with a look of tenderness and love. Jondalar, however, frowned, unable to maintain even the appearance that he was enjoying the direction the teasing had taken. He did not like the idea of sharing Ayla with anyone, particularly the charming carver.

Ranec picked up the refrain next, and the rest quickly joined in.

"Hus-na, dus-na, teesh-na, keesh-na.

Pec-na, sec-na, ha-na-nya!"

He did not look at anyone, at first, wanting to maintain some suspense. Then he flashed a big, toothy smile at Talut, the instigator of the teasing song, and everyone laughed in advance, waiting for Ranec to make a telling point on the one who had caused the others to squirm.

"Who's big and tall and strong and wise?

Lion Camp's own red-haired brute.

Who wields a tool to match his size?

Every woman's friend, Talut!"

The big headman roared at the verse a second time, then he picked to the Lion Camp, the rhythmic song burden of carrying back the results innuendo, as the others shouted out the up the refrain again. As they hiked back set the pace, and the laughter eased the of their hunting.

Nezzie came out of the longhouse and let the drape fall behind her. She gazed out across the river. The sun was low in the western sky, preparing to sink into a high bank of clouds near the horizon. She glanced up the slope, not sure why. She didn't really expect the hunters back yet; they had only left the day before and probably would be gone two nights, at least. Something made her look up again. Was that movement at the top of the path that led to the steppes?

"It's Talut!" she cried, seeing the familiar figure silhouetted against the sky. She ducked her head inside the earthlodge and shouted, "They're back! Talut and the rest, they're back!" Then she rushed up the slope to meet them.

Everyone came running out of the lodge to greet the returning hunters. They helped ease the heavy packboards off the backs of the people who had not only hunted but carried the products of their efforts back. But the sight that caused the most surprise was the horse dragging behind her a load much larger than anyone could carry. People gathered around as Ayla unloaded even more from the basket panniers. The meat and the other parts of the bison were immediately brought into the lodge, passed from hand to hand, and put into storage.

Ayla made sure the horses were comfortable after everyone went in, removing Whinney's harness and Racer's halter. Even though they seemed not to be suffering any consequences from spending their nights outside alone, the woman still felt a pang of concern about leaving them each evening when she went inside the lodge. As long as the weather stayed reasonably nice, it wasn't bad. A little cold didn't bother her, but this was the season of unexpected changes. What if a bad storm blew up? Where would the horses go then?

She looked up with a worried frown. High wispy clouds in brilliant shades streamed overhead. The sun had set not long before, and left a panoply of strident color trailing behind it. She watched until the ephemeral hues faded and the clear blue grayed.

When she went in, Ayla overheard a comment about her and the horse just before she pushed back the inner drape that led to the cooking hearth. People had been sitting around, relaxing, eating, and talking, but conversation stopped as she appeared. She felt uncomfortable entering the first hearth with everyone staring at her. Then Nezzie handed her a bone plate, and the talking started up again. Ayla began to serve herself, then stopped to look around. Where was the bison meat they had just brought back? There was not a sign of it anyplace. She knew it must have been put away, but where?

Ayla pushed back the heavy outer mammoth hide and looked first for the horses. Assured that they were safe, she looked for Deegie and smiled as she approached. Deegie had promised to show her, with the fresh bison skins, how the Mamutoi tanned and processed hides. In particular, Ayla was interested in how they colored leather red, like Deegie's tunic. Jondalar had said white was sacred to him; red was sacred to Ayla, because it was sacred to the Clan. A skin coloring paste of red ochre mixed with fat, preferably cave bear fat, was used in the naming ceremony; a piece of red ochre was the first object that went into an amulet bag, given at the time a person's totem was made known. From the beginning to the end of life, red ochre was used in many rituals, including the last, the burial. The small bag that contained the roots used to make the sacred drink was the only red thing Ayla had ever owned, and next to her amulet, it was her greatest treasure.

Nezzie came out of the lodge carrying a large piece of leather stained from use, and saw Ayla and Deegie together. "Oh, Deegie. I was looking for someone to help me," she said. "I thought I'd make a big stew for everyone. The bison hunt was so successful, Talut said he thought we should have a feast to celebrate. Will you set this up for cooking? I put hot coals in the pit by the big fireplace, and put the frame over it. There is a bag of dried mammoth dung out there to put in the coals. I'll send Danug and Latie for water."

"For one of your stews, I'll help any time, Nezzie."

"Can I help?" Ayla asked.

"And me," Jondalar said. He had just come up to talk to Ayla and overheard.

"You can help me carry some food out," Nezzie said as she turned to go back in.

They followed her toward one of the mammoth tusk archways that were along the walls inside the earthlodge. She pulled back a rather stiff, heavy drape of mammoth hide, which had not been dehaired. The double layer of reddish fur, with its downy undercoat and long outer hair, faced the outside. A second drape hung behind it and when it was pulled back they felt a breath of cold air. Looking into the dimly lit area, they saw a large pit the size of a small room. It was about three feet deeper than the floor level with the bare earth of the slope high up the walls, and it was almost full of frozen slabs and chunks, and smaller carcasses of meat.

"Storage!" Jondalar said, holding back the heavy drapes while Nezzie let herself down. "We keep meat frozen for winter, too, but not as conveniently close. Our shelters are built underneath the cliff overhangs, or in the front of some caves. But it's hard to keep meat frozen there, so our meat is outside."

"Clan keeps meat frozen in cold season in cache, under pile of stones," Ayla said, understanding now what had happened to the bison meat they brought back.

Nezzie and Jondalar both looked surprised. They never thought about people of the Clan storing meat for winter, and were still amazed when Ayla mentioned activities that seemed so advanced, so human. But then Jondalar's comments about the place where he lived had surprised Ayla. She had assumed all of the Others lived in the same kind of dwelling, and didn't realize the earthlodges were constructions as unusual to him as they were to her.

"We don't have a lot of stones around here to make caches with," Talut said in his booming voice. They looked up at the red-bearded giant coming toward them. He relieved Jondalar of one of the drapes. "Deegie told me you decided to make a stew, Nezzie," he said with an appreciative grin. "I thought I'd come and help."

"That man can smell food before it's even cooking!" Nezzie chuckled, as she rummaged around in the pit below.

Jondalar was still interested in the storage rooms. "How does the meat stay frozen like this? It's warm inside the lodge," Jondalar said, "In winter, all the ground is frozen hard as a rock, but it melts enough to dig in summer. When we build a lodge, we dig down far enough to reach the ground that is always frozen, for storage rooms. They will keep food cold even in summer, though not always frozen. In fall, as soon as the weather turns cold outside, the ground starts to freeze up. Then meat will freeze in the pits and we start storing for winter. The hide of the mammoth keeps the warm inside and the cold outside," Talut explained. "Just like it does for the mammoth," he added with a grin.

"Here, Talut, take this," Nezzie said, holding out a hard, frosty, reddish-brown chunk with a thick layer of yellowish fat on one side.

"I will take," Ayla offered, reaching for the meat.

Talut reached for Nezzie's hands, and though she was by no means a small woman, the powerful man lifted her out as though she were a child. "You're cold. I'll have to warm you up," he said, then putting his arms around her, he picked her up and nuzzled her neck.

"Stop it, Talut. Put me down!" she scolded, though her face glowed with delight. "I have work to do, this is not the right time…"

"Tell me the right time, then I'll put you down."

"We have visitors," she remonstrated, but she put her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear.

"That's a promise!" the huge man roared, setting her down lightly, and patting her ample backside, while the flustered woman straightened her clothes and tried to regain her dignity.

Jondalar grinned at Ayla, and put his arm around her waist.

Again, Ayla thought, they are making a game, saying one thing with words, and something else with their actions. But this time, she understood the humor and the underlying strong love shared by Talut and Nezzie. Suddenly she realized they showed love without being obvious, too, as the Clan did, by saying one thing that meant something else. With the new insight, an important concept fell into place that clarified and resolved many questions that had bothered her, and helped her to understand humor better.

"That Talut!" Nezzie said, trying to sound stern, but her pleased smile belied her tone. "If you've got nothing else to do, you can help get the roots, Talut." Then to the young woman, she added, "I'll show you where we keep them, Ayla. The Mother was bountiful this year, it was a good season and we dug up many."

They walked around a sleeping platform to another draped archway. "Roots and fruit are stored higher up," Talut said to the visitors, pulling back another drape and showing them baskets heaped with knobby, brown-skinned, starchy groundnuts; small, pale yellow wild carrots; the succulent lower stems of cattails and bulrushes; and other produce stored at ground level around the edge of a deeper pit. "They last longer if they are kept cold, but freezing makes them soft. We keep hides in the storage pits, too, until someone is ready to work them, and some bones to make tools and a little ivory for Ranec. He says freezing keeps it fresher and easier to work. Extra ivory, and bones for the fires, are stored in the entrance room and in the pits outside."

"That reminds me, I want a knee bone of a mammoth for the stew. That always adds richness and flavor," Nezzie said as she was filling a large basket with various vegetables. "Now where did I put those dried onion flowers?"

"I always thought that rock walls were necessary to survive a winter, for protection from the worst of the winds and storms," Jondalar said, his voice full of admiration. "We build shelters inside caves, against the walls, but you don't have caves. You don't even have many trees for wood to build shelters. You've done it all with mammoths!"

"That's why the Mammoth Hearth is sacred. We hunt other animals, but our life depends on the mammoth," Talut said.

"When I stayed with Brecie and the Willow Camp south of here, I didn't see any structures like these."

"Do you know Brecie, too?" Talut interrupted.

"Brecie and some people from her Camp pulled my brother and me out of quicksand."

"She and my sister are old friends," Talut said, "and related, through Tulie's first man. We grew up together. They call their summering place Willow Camp, but their home is Elk Camp. Summer dwellings are lighter, not like this. Lion Camp is a wintering place. Willow Camp often goes to Beran Sea for fish and shellfish and for salt to trade. What were you doing there?"

"Thonolan and I were crossing the delta of the Great Mother River. She saved our lives…"

"You should tell that story later. Everyone will want to hear about Brecie," Talut said.

It occurred to Jondalar that most of his stories were also about Thonolan. Whether he wanted to or not, he was going to have to talk about his brother. It wouldn't be easy, but he would have to get used to it, if he was going to talk at all.

They walked through the area of the Mammoth Hearth, which, except for the central passageway, was defined by mammoth bone partitions and leather drapes, as were all the hearths. Talut noticed Jondalar's spear-thrower.

"That was quite a demonstration you both gave," the headman said. "That bison was stopped in its tracks."

"This will do much more than you saw," Jondalar said, stopping to pick up the implement. "With it, you can throw a spear both harder and farther."

"Is that true? Maybe you can give us another demonstration," Talut said.

"I would like to, but we should go up on the steppes, to get a better feel for the range. I think you'll be surprised," Jondalar said, then turned to Ayla. "Why don't you bring yours, too?"

Outside Talut saw his sister heading toward the river, and called out to the headwoman that they were going to look at Jondalar's new way of throwing spears. They started up the slope, and by the time they reached the open plains, most of the Camp had joined them.

"How far can you throw a spear, Talut?" Jondalar asked when they reached a likely place for a demonstration. "Can you show me?"

"Of course, but why?"

"Because I want to show you that I can throw one farther," Jondalar said.

General laughter followed his statement. "You'd better pick someone else to pit yourself against. I know you're a big man, and probably strong, but no one can throw a spear farther than Talut," Barzec advised. "Why don't you just show him, Talut? Give him a fair chance to see what he's up against. Then he can compete in his own range. I could give him a good contest, maybe even Danug could."

"No," Jondalar said, with a gleam in his eye. This was shaping up into a competition. "If Talut is your best, then only Talut will do. And I would wager that I can throw a spear farther… except I have nothing to wager. In fact, with this," Jondalar said, holding up the narrow, flat implement shaped out of wood, "I would wager that Ayla can throw a spear farther, faster, and with better accuracy than Talut."

There was a buzzing of amazement among the assembled Camp in response to Jondalar's claim. Tulie eyed Ayla and Jondalar. They were too relaxed, too confident. It should have been obvious to them that they were no match for her brother. She doubted that they'd even be a match for her. She was nearly as tall as the fair-haired man and possibly stronger, though his long reach might give him an edge. What did they know that she didn't? She stepped forward.

"I'll give you something to wager," she said. "If you win, I will give you the right to make a reasonable claim of me, and if it's within my power, I will grant it."

"And if I lose?"

"You will grant me the same."

"Tulie, are you sure you want to wager a future claim?" Barzec asked his mate, with a worried frown. Such undefined terms were high stakes, invariably requiring more than usual payment. Not so much because the winner made unusually high demands, although that happened, but because the loser needed to be certain the wager was satisfied and no further claim could be made. Who knew what this stranger might ask?

"Against a future claim? Yes," she replied. But she did not say that she believed she could not lose either way, because if he won, if it really did what he said, they would have access to a valuable new weapon. If he lost, she'd have a claim on him. "What do you say, Jondalar?"

Tulie was shrewd, but Jondalar was smiling. He'd wagered for future claims before; they always added flavor to the game, and interest for the spectators. He wanted to share the secret of his discovery. He wanted to see how it would be accepted, and how it would work in a communal hunt. That was the next logical step in testing his new hunting weapon. With a little experimentation and practice, anyone could do it. That was the beauty of it. But it took time to practice and learn the new technique, which would require eager enthusiasm. The wager would help to create that… and he'd have a future claim on Tulie. He had no doubt of that.

"Agreed!" Jondalar said.

Ayla was watching the interplay. She didn't quite understand this wagering, except that some competition was involved, but she knew more was going on beneath the surface.

"Let's get some targets up here to sight on, and some markers," Barzec said, taking charge of the competition. "Druwez, you and Danug get some long bones for posts."

He smiled, watching the two boys racing down the slope. Danug, so much like Talut, towered over the other boy, though he was only a year older, but at thirteen years Druwez was beginning to show a stocky, compact muscularity, similar to Barzec's build.

Barzec was convinced this youngster, and little Tusie, were the progeny of his spirit, just as Deegie and Tarneg were probably Darnev's. He wasn't sure about Brinan. Eight years since his birth, but it was still hard to tell. Mut may have chosen some other spirit, not one of the two men of the Aurochs Hearth. He resembled Tulie, and had her brother's red hair, but Brinan had his own look. Darnev had felt the same way. Barzec felt a lump in his throat, sharply aware for a moment of his co-mate's absence. It wasn't the same without Darnev, Barzec thought. After two years, he still grieved as much as Tulie.

By the time mammoth leg-bone posts – with red fox tails tied to them and baskets woven with brightly dyed grasses inverted on top – were raised to mark the throwing line, the day was beginning to take on a feeling of celebration. Starting at each post, shocks of long grass, still growing, were tied together with cord at intervals, creating a wide lane. The children were racing up and down the throwing course, stamping down the grass, and delineating the space even more. Others brought spears out, then someone got an idea to stuff an old sleeping pallet with grass and dry mammoth dung, which was then marked with figures in black charcoal to use as a movable target.

During the preparations, which seemed to grow more elaborate of their own accord, Ayla started to put together a morning meal for Jondalar, Mamut, and herself. Soon it included all of the Lion Hearth so Nezzie could get the stew cooking. Talut volunteered his fermented drink for dinner, which made everyone feel it was a special occasion, since he usually brought out his bouza only for guests and celebrations. Then Ranec announced he would make his special dish, which surprised Ayla to learn that he cooked, and pleased everyone else. Tornec and Deegie said if they were going to have a festival, they might as well… do something. It was a word that Ayla did not understand, but which was greeted with even more enthusiasm than Ranec's specialty.

By the time the morning meal was over and cleaned up, the lodge was empty. Ayla was the last to leave. Letting the drape of the outer archway fall back behind her, she noticed it was midmorning. The horses had wandered a little closer, and Whinney tossed her head and snorted a greeting to the woman as she appeared. The spears had been left up on the steppes, but she had brought her sling back, and was holding it in her hand along with a pouch of round pebbles she had selected from a gravel bed near the bend in the river. She had no waist thong around her heavy parka to tuck the sling in, and no convenient fold in a wrap in which to carry the missiles. The tunic and parka she was wearing were loose-fitting.

The whole Camp was caught up in the competition; almost everyone was already up the slope, waiting in anticipation. She started up, too, then saw Rydag waiting patiently for someone to notice him and carry him up, but the ones who usually did – Talut, Danug, and Jondalar – were already on the steppes.

Ayla smiled at the child and went to pick him up, then got an idea. Turning around, she whistled for Whinney. The mare and the colt both galloped to her, and seemed so pleased to see her Ayla realized she hadn't spent much time with them recently. There were so many people who took up her time. She resolved to go out for a ride every morning, at least while the weather held. Then she picked up Rydag and put him on the mare's back to let Whinney carry him up the steep grade.

"Hold onto her mane so you don't fall backward," she cautioned.

He nodded agreement, grabbed hold of the thick, dark hair standing up on the back of the neck of the hay-colored horse, and heaved a great sigh of happiness.

The tension in the air was palpable when Ayla reached the spear-throwing course. It made her realize that, for all the festivities, the contest had become serious business. The wager had made it more than a demonstration. She left Rydag on Whinney's back so he would have a goad view of the activities, and stood quietly beside both horses to keep them calm. They were more comfortable around these people now, but the mare sensed the tension, she knew, and Racer always sensed his dam's moods.

The people were milling around in anticipation, some throwing spears of their own down the well-trampled course. No special time had been predetermined for the contest to begin, yet, as though someone had given a signal, everyone seemed to know the precise moment to clear the way and quiet down. Talut and Jondalar were standing between the two posts eying the course. Tulie was beside them. Though Jondalar had originally said he would wager that even Ayla could cast a spear farther than Talut, it seemed so farfetched the comment evidently had been ignored, and she watched with avid interest from the sidelines.

Talut's spears were bigger and longer than any of the others, as though his powerful muscles needed something with weight and mass to hurl, but, Ayla recalled, the spears of the men of the Clan had been even heavier and bulkier if not as long. Ayla noticed other differences as well. Unlike Clan spears, made for thrusting, these spears, along with hers and Jondalar's, were made for throwing through the air, and were all fletched, though the Lion Camp seemed to prefer three feathers attached to the butt end of the shafts, while Jondalar used two. The spears she had made for herself while living alone in her valley had sharpened, fire-hardened points, similar to ones she had seen in the Clan. Jondalar had shaped and sharpened bone into spear points and attached them to shafts. The Mammoth Hunters seemed to prefer flint-tipped spears.

Engrossed in her careful observation of the spears that various people were holding, she almost missed Talut's first hurl. He had stepped back a few paces, then, with a running start, let fly with a mighty cast. The spear whizzed past the bystanders and landed with a solid thunk, its point nearly buried in the ground and the shaft vibrating from the impact. The admiring Camp left no doubt what they thought of their headman's feat. Even Jondalar was surprised. He had suspected Talut's throw would be long, but the big man had far exceeded his expectations. No wonder the people had doubted his claim.

Jondalar paced the distance off to get a feel for the measure he would have to beat, then went back to the throwing line. Holding the spear-thrower horizontally, he laid the back end of the spear shaft in the groove that ran down the length of the device and fitted a hole carved out of the spear butt into the small protruding hook at the back end of the thrower. He put his first two fingers through the leather finger loops at the front end, which allowed him to hold the spear and the spear-thrower at a good balance point. He sighted down the field on Talut's upright spear, then pulled back and heaved.

As he hurled, the back end of the spear-thrower raised up, in effect, extending the length of his arm by another two feet, and adding the impetus of the extra leverage to the force of the throw. His spear whistled past the onlookers, and then to their surprise, past the upright spear of their headman, and well beyond it. It landed flat and slid a short way rather than lodging in the ground. With the device, Jondalar had doubled his own previous distance, and while he had by no means doubled Talut's cast, he had exceeded it by a good measure.

Suddenly, before the Camp could catch its breath, and mark the difference between the two casts, another spear came hurtling down the course. Startled, Tulie glanced back and saw Ayla at the throwing line, spear-thrower still in hand. She looked ahead in time to see the spear land. Though Ayla hadn't quite matched Jondalar's throw, the young woman had outdistanced Talut's mighty heave, and the look on Tulie's face was sheer disbelief.

9

"You have a future claim on me, Jondalar," Tulie stated. "I admit I might have given you an outside chance to beat Talut, but never would I have believed the woman could. I'd like to see that… aah… what do you call it?"

"A spear-thrower. I don't know what else to call it. I got the idea from Ayla, when I was watching her with her sling one day. I kept thinking, if only I could throw a spear as far, and as fast, and as well as she can throw a stone with a sling. Then I started thinking about how to do it," Jondalar said.

"You've talked about her skill before. Is she really that good?" Tulie asked.

Jondalar smiled. "Ayla, why don't you get your sling and show Tulie?"

Ayla's brow creased. She wasn't used to public demonstrations. She had perfected her skill in secret, and after she was grudgingly allowed to hunt, she always went out alone. It had made both the clan and her uncomfortable for them to see her use a hunting weapon. Jondalar was the first one who ever hunted with her, and the first to see her display her self-taught expertise. She watched the smiling man for a moment. He was relaxed, confident. She could detect no cues warning her to refuse.

She nodded her head and went to get her sling and the bag of stones from Rydag, to whom she had given them when she decided to throw the spear. The boy was smiling at her from Whinney's back, feeling a part of the excitement, delighted at the stir she had caused.

She looked around for targets. She noticed the upright mammoth rib bones and sighted on them first. The resonant, almost musical, sound of stones hitting bone left no doubt that she had hit the posts, but that was too easy. She looked around trying to find something else to hit. She was used to searching out birds and small animals to hunt, not objects to throw stones at.

Jondalar knew she could do much more than hit posts, and recalling one afternoon during the summer just past, his smile turned into a grin as he looked around, then kicked loose some clods of dirt. "Ayla," he called.

She turned, and looking down the throwing lane, saw him standing with legs apart, his hands on his hips, and a clod of dirt balanced on each shoulder. She frowned. He had done something similar once before with two rocks, and she didn't like to see him put himself in jeopardy. Stones from a sling could be fatal. But, when she thought about it, she had to admit that it was more dangerous in appearance than in actuality. Two unmoving objects should be an easy target for her. She hadn't missed a shot like that in years. Why should she miss it now, just because a man happened to be supporting the objects – the man she loved?

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, then nodded again. Picking out two stones from the pouch on the ground at her feet, she brought together the two ends of the leather strap and fitted one of the stones into the worn pocket in the middle, holding the other stone in readiness. Then she looked up.

A nervous stillness hovered over and filled the empty spaces around the onlookers. No one spoke. No one even breathed, it seemed. All was quiet, except for the screaming tension in the air.

Ayla concentrated on the man with the clumps of dirt on his shoulders. When she started to move, the entire Camp strained forward. With the lithe grace and subtle movement of a trained hunter who has learned to signal her intention as little as possible, the young woman wound up and let fly the first missile.

Even before the first stone had reached its mark, she was readying the second. The hard clump of dirt on Jondalar's right shoulder exploded with the impact of the harder stone. Then, before anyone was even aware she had cast it, the second stone followed the first, pulverizing the lump of gray-brown bess soil on his left shoulder in a cloud of dust. It happened so fast some of the watchers felt as though they'd missed it, or that it was a trick of some kind.

It was a trick, a trick of skill few could have duplicated. No one had taught Ayla to use a sling. She had learned by secretly watching the men of Brun's clan, and by trial and error, and practice. She had developed the rapid-fire double stone throw technique as a means of self-defense after she'd missed her first shot once, and barely escaped an attacking lynx. She didn't know that most people would have said it was impossible; there had been no one to tell her.

Though she didn't realize it, it was doubtful if she would ever meet anyone who could match her skill, and it didn't matter to her in the least. Pitting herself against another to see who was best was of no interest to her. Her only competition was with herself; her only desire was to better her own skill. She knew her capabilities, and when she thought of a new technique, such as the double stone throw or hunting from horseback, she tried several approaches and when she found one that seemed to work, she practiced until she could do it.

In every human activity, a few people, through concentration and practice, and deep desire, can become so skilled that they excel all others. Ayla was such an expert with her sling.

There was a moment of silence as people released held breaths, then murmurs of surprise, then Ranec began slapping his thighs with his hands. Soon the entire Camp was applauding in the same way. Ayla wasn't sure what it meant, and glanced at Jondalar. He was beaming with delight, and she began to sense the applause was a sign of approval.

Tulie was applauding, too, though in a somewhat more restrained manner than some of the others, not wanting to seem too impressed, though Jondalar felt sure she was.

"If you think that was something, watch this!" he said, reaching down for two more hard lumps of dirt. He saw that Ayla was watching him, and was ready with two more stones. He threw both chunks into the air at one time. Ayla discharged one and then the other in a burst of dust and falling dirt. He threw up two more, and she blasted them before they hit the ground.

Talut's eyes were gleaming with excitement. "She is goad!" he said.

"You throw two up," Jondalar said to him. Then he caught Ayla's eye and picked up two more hunks of dirt himself and held them up to show her. She reached into the pouch and came up holding four stones, two in each hand. It would take exceptional coordination just to load and throw four stones with a sling before four clods thrown up in the air fell back to earth, but to do it with enough accuracy to hit them would be a challenge that would certainly test her skill. Jondalar overheard Barzec and Manuv making a wager between themselves; Manuv was betting on Ayla. After saving little Nuvie's life, he was sure she could do anything.

Jondalar hurled the clods up, one after the other, with his strong right hand as Talut heaved two more dry clumps of dirt as high as he could into the air.

The first two, one of Jondalar's and one of Talut's, were hit in quick succession. Dirt rained down from the collision, but it took extra time to transfer the additional stones from one hand to the other. Jondalar's other clump was falling, and Talut's was slowing as it neared the top of its arc, before Ayla could ready the sling again. She sighted on the lowest target, gaining speed as it was falling, and flung a stone out of the sling. She watched it hit, waiting longer than she should have before reaching again for the loose end of the sling. She would have to hurry.

With a smooth motion, Ayla put the last stone into the sling, and then, faster than anyone could believe, whipped it out again, shattering the last lump of dirt just before it hit the ground.

The Camp burst into shouts of approval and congratulations, and thigh-slapping applause.

"That was quite a demonstration, Ayla," Tulie said, her voice warm with praise. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like it."

"I thank you," Ayla answered, flushed with pleasure from the headwoman's response, as well as her achievement. More people crowded around her, full of compliments. She smiled shyly, then looked for Jondalar, feeling a little uncomfortable with all the attention. He was talking to Wymez and Talut, who had Rugie on his shoulders and Latie at his side. He saw her looking at him, and smiled, but kept on talking.

"Ayla, how did you ever learn to handle a sling like that?" Deegie asked.

"And where? Who taught you?" Crozie asked.

"I would like to learn to do that," Danug added, shyly. The tall young man was standing behind the others looking at Ayla with adoring eyes. The first time he saw her, Ayla had awakened youthful stirrings in Danug. He thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, and that Jondalar, whom he admired, was very lucky. But after his ride on the horse, and now her demonstration of skill, his budding interest had suddenly blossomed into a full-blown crush.

Ayla gave him a tentative smile.

"Perhaps you'll give us some instruction, when you and Jondalar show us your spear-throwers," Tulie suggested.

"Yes. I wouldn't mind knowing how to use a sling like that, but that spear-thrower really looks interesting, if it's reasonably accurate," Tornec added.

Ayla backed up. The questions and the crowding were making her nervous. "Spear-thrower is accurate… if hand is accurate," she said, remembering how diligently she and Jondalar had practiced with the implement. Nothing was accurate by itself.

"That's always the way. The hand, and the eye, make the artist, Ayla," Ranec said, reaching for her hand and looking into her eyes. "Do you know how beautiful, how graceful you were? You are an artist with a sling."

The dark eyes that looked into hers held her, compelled her to see the strong attraction, and pulled from the woman in her a response as ancient as life itself. But her heart beat with a warning as well; this was not the right man. This was not the man she loved. The feeling Ranec drew from her was undeniable, but of a different nature.

She forced her eyes away, looked frantically around for Jondalar… and found him. He was staring at them, and his vivid blue eyes were filled with fire and ice, and pain.

Ayla pulled her hand away from Ranec and backed off. It was too much. All the questions and crowding, and uncontrollable emotions overpowering her. Her stomach tightened into a knot, her chest pounded, her throat ached; she had to get away. She saw Whinney with Rydag still on her back, and without thinking, swooped up the pouch of stones with the hand that still held her sling as she raced toward the horse.

She vaulted onto the mare's back and wrapped a protective arm around the boy as she leaned forward. With the signals of pressure and movement, and the subtle, inexplicable communication between horse and woman, Whinney sensed her need to flee and, leaping to a start, raced across the open plains in a fast gallop. Racer followed behind, keeping up with his dam with no trouble.

The people of the Lion Camp were stunned. Most of them had no idea why Ayla had run for her horse, and only a few had seen her ride hard. The woman, long blond hair flying in the wind behind her, clinging to the back of the galloping mare, was a startling and awesome sight, and more than one would have gladly traded places with Rydag. Nezzie felt a twinge of worry for him, then, feeling that Ayla wouldn't let him come to harm, she relaxed.

The boy didn't know why he had been granted this rare treat, but his eyes glistened with delight. Though the excitement caused his heart to pound a bit, with Ayla's arm around him, he felt no fear, only a breathless wonder to be racing into the wind.

Flight from the scene of her distress and the familiar feel and sound of the horse relieved Ayla's tension. As she relaxed, she noticed Rydag's heart beating against her arm with its peculiar, indistinct rumbling sound, and felt a moment's concern. She wondered if she was wise to have taken him with her, then realized the heartbeat, though abnormal, was not unduly stressed.

She slowed the horse, and making a wide circle, headed back. As they neared the throwing course, they passed near a pair of ptarmigan, their mottled summer plumage not yet fully changed to winter white, concealed in the high grass. The horses flushed them out. Out of habit, as they took to the air, Ayla readied her sling, then looked down and saw that Rydag had two stones in his hand from the pouch he held in front of him. She took them, and guiding Whinney with her thighs, she knocked one of the low-flying fat fowl down from the sky, and then the other.

She halted Whinney and, holding Rydag, slid off the mare's back with the boy in her arms. She put him down and retrieved the birds, wrung their necks, and with a few stringy stalks of standing hay, she tied together their feathered feet. Though they could fly fast and far when they chose, ptarmigan did not fly south. Instead, with a heavy winter girth of white feathers that camouflaged and warmed their bodies and made snowshoes of their feet, they endured the bitter season, feeding on seed and twigs, and when a blizzard struck, scratched out small caves in the snow to wait it out.

Ayla put Rydag on Whinney's back again. "Will you hold the ptarmigan?" she signed.

"You will let me?" he signaled back, his sheer joy showing in more than his hand signs. He had never run fast just for the pleasure of running fast; for the first time he felt what it was like. He had never hunted or really understood the complex feelings that came from the exercise of intelligence and skill in the pursuit of sustenance for himself and his people. This was as close as he had ever come; it was as close as he ever could.

Ayla smiled, draped the birds across the horse's withers in front of Rydag, then turned and started walking toward the throwing course. Whinney followed. Ayla wasn't in a hurry to get back, she was still upset, remembering Jondalar's angry look. Why does he get so angry? One moment he was smiling at her, so pleased… when everyone was crowding in on her. But when Ranec… She flushed, remembering the dark eyes, the smooth voice. Others! she thought, shaking her head as if to clear her mind. I don't understand these Others!

The wind blowing from her back whipped tendrils of her long hair in her face. Annoyed, she brushed them out of her way with her hand. She had thought several times about braiding her hair again, the way she had worn it when she lived alone in the valley, but Jondalar liked her hair worn loose, so she left it down. It was a nuisance sometimes. Then, with a touch of irritation, she noticed that she still held her sling in her hand because she had no place to put it, no convenient thong to tuck it in. She wasn't even able to wear her medicine bag with these clothes that she wore because Jondalar liked them; she had always tied it to the thong that held her wrap closed.

She lifted her hand to push her hair out of her eyes again, and then noticed her sling. She stopped, and pulling her hair back out of her eyes, she wrapped the supple leather sling around her head. Tucking the loose end under, she smiled, pleased with herself. It seemed to work. Her hair still hung loose down her back, but the sling kept her hair out of her eyes, and her head seemed to be a good place to carry her sling.

Most people assumed Ayla's flying leap on the horse, and the fast ride ending with the quick dispatch of the ptarmigan, were part of her sling demonstration. She refrained from correcting them, but she avoided looking at Jondalar and Ranec.

Jondalar knew she was upset when she turned and ran, and was sure the fault was his. He was sorry, mentally chided himself, but was having trouble coping with his unfamiliar mixed emotions, and didn't know how to tell her. Ranec hadn't realized the depth of Ayla's distress. He knew he was provoking some feeling from her, and suspected that may have contributed to her disconcerted rush toward the horse, but he thought her actions were naive and charming. He was finding himself even more attracted to her and wondered just how strong her feeling was for the big blond man.

Children were racing up and down the throwing course again when she returned. Nezzie came for Rydag, and took the birds as well. Ayla let the horses go. They moved off and began to graze. Ayla stayed to watch when a friendly disagreement led several people to an informal spear-throwing contest, which then led them to an activity beyond her realm of experience. They played a game. She understood competitions, contests that tested necessary skills – who could run the fastest or throw a spear the farthest – but not an activity whose object seemed to be simply enjoyment, with the testing or improving of essential skills incidental.

Several hoops were brought up from the lodge. They were about the size that would fit over a thigh, and had been made of strips of wet rawhide, braided and allowed to dry stiff, then wrapped tightly with bear grass. Sharpened feathered shafts – light spears, but not tipped with bone or flint points – were also part of the equipment.

The hoops were rolled on the ground, and the shafts thrown at them. When someone stopped a hoop by throwing a shaft through the hole and embedding it in the ground, shouts and thigh-slapping applause signaled approval. The game, which also involved the counting words and this thing called wagering, had aroused great excitement, and Ayla was fascinated. Both men and women played, but took turns rolling the hoops and throwing the shafts, as though they were opposing each other.

Finally, some conclusion was reached. Several people headed back to the lodge. Deegie, flushed with excitement, was among them. Ayla joined her.

"This day seems to be turning into a festival," Deegie said. "Contests, games, and it looks like we're going to have a real feast. Nezzie's stew, Talut's bouza, Ranec's dish. What are you going to do with the ptarmigan?"

"I have special way I like to cook. You think I should make?"

"Why not? It would add to the feast to have another special dish."

Before they reached the lodge, preparations for the feast were evident in the delicious cooking smells that reached out with tantalizing promise. Nezzie's stew was largely responsible. It was quietly bubbling in the large cooking hide, tended at the moment by Latie and Brinan, though everyone seemed to be involved in some way with food preparations. Ayla had been interested in the stew cooking arrangement, and had watched Nezzie and Deegie set it up.

In a large pothole that had been dug near a fireplace, hot coals were placed on top of ashes, accumulated from previous use, that lined the bottom. A layer of powdered, dried mammoth dung was poured on the coals, and on top of that was placed a large, thick piece of mammoth hide supported by a frame, and filled with water. The coals smoldering under the dung began to heat the water, but by the time the dung caught fire, enough of the fuel had been burned away that the hide no longer rested on it, but was supported by the frame. The liquid slowly seeping through the hide, though it had reached boiling, kept the leather from catching fire. When the fuel under the cooking hide was burned away, the stew was kept boiling by the addition of river stones that had been heated red hot in the fireplace, a chore some children were tending to.

Ayla plucked the two ptarmigan and gutted them, using a small flint knife. It had no handle, but the back had been dulled by retouching to prevent cutting the user, and a notch had been chipped away from behind the point. It was held with the thumb and index finger on either side, and the forefinger on the notch, making it easy to control. It was not a knife for heavy work, only for cutting meat or leather, and Ayla had only learned to use it since she arrived, but found it very convenient.

She had always cooked her ptarmigan in a pit lined with stones in which a fire was lit and allowed to go out before the birds were put in and covered over. But large stones were not easy to find in this region, so she decided to adapt the stewpot heating pit to her use. It was the wrong season for the greens she liked to use – coltsfoot, nettles, pigweed – and for ptarmigan eggs, or she would have stuffed the cavity with them, but some of the herbs in her medicine bag, used lightly, were good for seasoning as well as healing, and the hay she wrapped the birds in added a subtle flavor of its own. It might not be exactly Creb's favorite dish when she was through, but the ptarmigan should taste good, she thought.

When she finished cleaning the birds, she went inside, and saw Nezzie at the first hearth starting a fire in the large fireplace.

"I would like to cook ptarmigan in hole, like you cook stew in hole. Can I have coals?" Ayla asked.

"Of course. Is there anything else you need?"

"I have dried herbs. I like fresh greens in birds. Wrong season."

"You could look in the storage room. There are some other vegetables you might think of using, and we do have some salt," Nezzie volunteered.

Salt, Ayla thought. She hadn't cooked with salt since she left the Clan. "Yes, would like salt. Maybe vegetable. Will look. Where I find hot coals?"

"I'll give you some, as soon as I get this going."

Ayla watched Nezzie make the fire, idly at first, not paying much attention, but then she found herself intrigued. She knew, but had not really thought about it before, that they did not have many trees. They burned bone for fuel, and bone did not burn very easily. Nezzie had produced a small ember from another fireplace, and with it set fire to some fluff from the seedpods of fireweed collected for tinder. She added some dried dung, which made a hotter and stronger flame, and then small shavings and chips of bone. They did not catch hold well.

Nezzie blew at the fire to keep it going while she moved a small handle the young woman had not noticed before. Ayla heard a slight whistling sound of wind, noticed a few ashes blowing around, and saw the flame burn brighter. With the hotter flame, the bone chips began to singe around the edges, then burst into flame. And Ayla suddenly realized the source of something that had been nagging at her, something she had barely noticed but that had bothered her ever since she arrived at the Lion Camp. The smell of smoke was wrong.

She had burned some dried dung occasionally and was familiar with the strong sharp odor of its smoke, but her primary fuel had been of plant origin; she was used to the smell of wood smoke. The fuel used by the Lion Camp was of animal origin. The smell of burning bone had a different character, a quality reminiscent of a roast left too long on the fire. In combination with the dried dung, which they also used in large quantities, a distinctive pungent odor permeated the entire encampment. It wasn't unpleasant, but unfamiliar, which created in her a slight uneasiness. Now that she had identified the cause, a certain undefined tension was relieved.

Ayla smiled as she watched Nezzie add more bone, and adjust the handle, which made it burn hotter.

"How you do that?" she asked. "Make fire so hot?"

"Fire needs to breathe, too, and wind is the fire's breath. The Mother taught us that when She made women keepers of the hearth. You can see it when you give your breath to fire; when you blow on it, the fire gets hotter. We dig a trench from underneath the fireplace to the outside to bring the wind in. The trench is lined with the intestines of an animal that are blown full with air before they are dried, then covered over with bone before the dirt is put back. The trench for this hearth goes out that way, under those grass mats. See?"

Ayla looked where Nezzie pointed, and nodded.

"It comes in here," the woman continued, showing her a hollow bison horn protruding out of an opening in the side of the firepit, which was lower than the level of the floor. "But you don't always want the same amount of wind. It depends how hard it is blowing outside and how much fire you want. You block the wind, or open it up here," Nezzie said, showing her the handle that was attached to a damper made of thin scapular bone.

In concept, it seemed simple enough, but it was an ingenious idea, a true technical achievement, and essential to survival. Without it the Mammoth Hunters could not have lived on the subarctic steppes, except in a few isolated locations, for all the abundance of game. At most, they would have been seasonal visitors. In a land nearly devoid of trees, and with the harsh winters only known when glaciers advance upon the land, the forced-air fireplace enabled them to burn bone, the only fuel available in quantities large enough to allow year-round occupation.

After Nezzie got the fire started, Ayla looked through the storage rooms to see if there was anything that appealed to her to stuff the ptarmigan with. She was tempted by some dried embryos from the eggs of birds, but they would probably have to be soaked, and she wasn't sure how long that would take. She thought about using wild carrots or the peas from milk vetch pods, but changed her mind.

Then she caught sight of the woven container that still held the gruel of grains and vegetables she had stone-boiled that morning. It had been put aside to lunch on as anyone wished, and had thickened and settled. She tasted it. Without salt, people preferred distinctive, spicy flavors, and she had flavored the gruel with sage and mint, and added bitterroots, onions, and wild carrots to the mixed rye and barley grains.

With some salt, she thought, and the sunflower seeds she had seen in a storage room, and the dried currants… and perhaps coltsfoot and rose hips from her medicine bag, it might make an interesting filling for the ptarmigan. Ayla prepared and stuffed the birds, wrapped them in fresh-cut hay, and buried them in a pit with some bone coals and covered them with ashes. Then she went to see what other people were doing.

A lot of activity was going on near the entrance to the lodge and most of the Camp had congregated there. As she drew near, she saw that large piles of grain-bearing stalks had been collected. Some people were threshing, trampling, beating and flailing bunches of the stalks to free the grain from the straw and hulls. Others were removing the chaff that was left by tossing the grain into the air from wide, flat winnowing trays made of willow withes, to let the lighter husks blow away. Ranec was putting the grain in a mortar made from a hollowed-out mammoth foot bone extended by a section of leg bone. He picked up a mammoth tusk, severed crosswise, which served as the pestle, and began pounding the grains.

Soon Barzec took off his outer fur parka, and standing opposite him, picked up the heavy tusk every other stroke, so that the work alternated back and forth between them. Tornec began clapping his hands together matching the rhythm, and Manuv picked it up with a repetitive, chanting refrain.

"I-yah wo-wo, Ranec pounding grains go yah!

I-yah wo-wo, Ranec pounding grains go neh!"

Then Deegie came in on the alternating stroke harmonizing with a contrasting phrase.

"Neh neh neh neh, Barzec makes it easy yah!

Neh neh neh neh, Barzec makes it easy nah!"

Soon others were slapping their thighs, and male voices sang with Manuv while the female voices joined Deegie. Ayla felt the strong rhythm, and hummed along under her breath, not entirely sure about joining in, but enjoying it.

After a time, Wymez, who had taken off his parka, moved close beside Ranec and relieved him without missing a beat. Manuv was just as quick to change the refrain, and on the following beat sang a new line.

"Nah nah we-ye, Wymez takes the grinder yoh!"

When Barzec seemed to tire, Druwez took it from him and Deegie changed her phrase, and then Frebec took a turn.

They stopped then to check the results and poured the ground grain into a sieve basket of plaited cattail leaves, and shook it through. Then more grain was put into the bone mortar, but this time Tulie and Deegie took up the mammoth tusk pestle, and Manuv made up a refrain for both, but sang the female part in a falsetto voice that made everyone laugh. Nezzie took over from Tulie, and on an impulse, Ayla stepped up beside Deegie, which brought smiles and nods.

Deegie banged the tusk down and let go. Nezzie reached out and lifted as Ayla moved into Deegie's place. Ayla heard a "yah!" as the pestle slammed down again, and grabbed the thick, slightly curved, ivory shaft. It was heavier than she expected, bur she lifted it and heard Manuv sing.

"A-yah wa-wa, Ayla here is welcome nah!"

She almost dropped the mammoth tusk. She hadn't expected the spontaneous gesture of friendship, and on the next beat when the whole Lion Camp sang it out, both men and women, she was so moved she had to blink back tears. It was more than just a simple message of warmth and friendship to her; it was acceptance. She had found the Others, and they had made her welcome.

Tronie replaced Nezzie, and after a while Fralie made a move toward them, but Ayla shook her head, and the pregnant woman stepped back, readily acquiescing. Ayla was glad she did, but it confirmed her suspicion that Fralie was not feeling well. They continued to pound the grain, until Nezzie stopped them to pour it into the sieve and refill the mortar again.

This time Jondalar stepped up to take a turn at the tedious and difficult task of grinding the wild grain by hand, made easier by cooperative effort and fun. But he frowned when Ranec came forward, too. Suddenly the tension between the dark-skinned man and the blond visitor charged the friendly atmosphere with a subtle undercurrent of enmity.

When the two men, alternating the heavy tusk between them, began to pick up the pace, everyone felt it. As they continued to speed up, the chanting songs faded out, but some people began stamping their feet, and the clapping became louder and sharper. Imperceptibly, Jondalar and Ranec increased the force along with the pace, and instead of a cooperative work effort, it became a contest of strength and will. The pestle was slammed down so hard by one man it bounced back up for the other to grab and slam back down again.

Sweat beaded up on their foreheads, ran down their faces and into their eyes. It soaked their tunics as they kept pushing each other, faster, and harder, smashing the large heavy pestle into the mortar, one then the other, back and forth. It seemed to go on forever, but they wouldn't quit. They were breathing hard, showing signs of strain and fatigue, but refused to give in. Neither man was willing to yield to the other; it seemed each would rather die first.

Ayla was beside herself. They were pushing too hard. She looked at Talut with panic in her eyes. Talut nodded to Danug and they both moved toward the stubborn men who seemed determined to kill themselves.

"It's time to give someone else a turn!" Talut thundered, as he shoved Jondalar out of the way and grabbed the pestle. Danug snatched it away from Ranec on the rebound.

Both men were so dazed with exhaustion they hardly seemed to know the contest was over as they staggered away, gasping for breath. Ayla wanted to rush to their aid, but indecision held her back. She knew that somehow she was the cause of their struggle, and no matter which one she went to first, the other would lose face. The people of the Camp were worried, too, but reluctant to offer help. They were afraid that if they expressed their concern, it would acknowledge that the competition between the two men was more than a game, and lend credence to a rivalry that no one was ready to take so seriously.

As Jondalar and Ranec began to recover, attention shifted back to Talut and Danug, who were still pounding the grain – and making a competition of it. A friendly competition, but not any less intense. Talut was grinning at the young copy of himself as he smashed the ivory pestle into the foot bone. Danug, unsmiling, slammed it back with grim determination.

"Good for you, Danug!" Tornec shouted.

"He doesn't stand a chance," Barzec countered.

"Danug's younger," Deegie said. "Talut will give out first."

"He doesn't have Talut's stamina," Frebec disagreed.

"He doesn't have Talut's strength yet, but Danug has the stamina," Ranec said. He had finally caught his breath enough to contribute to the commentary. Though still suffering from the exertion, he saw their contest as a way to make his competition with Jondalar seem less than the dead serious effort it had been.

"Come on, Danug!". Druwez shouted.

"You can do it!" Latie added, caught up in the enthusiasm, though she wasn't sure if she meant it for Danug or Talut.

Suddenly, with a hard bang from Danug, the foot bone cracked.

"That's just enough!" Nezzie scolded. "You don't have to pound so hard you break the mortar. Now we need a new one, and I think you should make it, Talut."

"I think you are right!" Talut said, beaming with delight. "That was a good match, Danug. You have grown strong while you were away. Did you see that boy, Nezzie?"

"Look at this!" Nezzie said, removing the contents of the mortar. "This grain has been beaten to powder! I just wanted it cracked. I was going to parch it and store it. You can't parch this to keep it."

"What kind of grain is it? I'll ask Wymez, but I think my mother's people made something from grain pounded to dust," Ranec said. "I'll take some of it, if no one else wants it."

"It's mostly wheat, but some rye and oats are mixed in. Tulie already has enough for little loaves of ground grain everyone likes, they just have to be cooked. Talut wanted some grain to mix with the cattail root starch for his bouza. But you can have it all, if you want it. You worked for it."

"Talut worked for it, too. If he wants some he can have it," Ranec said.

"Use what you want, Ranec. I'll take what's left," Talut said. "The cattail root starch I have soaking is starting to ferment. I don't know what would happen if I put this in it, but it might be interesting to try it and see."

Ayla watched both Jondalar and Ranec to assure herself that they were all right. When she saw Jondalar pull off his sweaty tunic, slosh water over himself, and go into the lodge, she knew he had suffered no ill effects. Then she felt a little foolish for worrying about him so much. He was a strong, vigorous man, after all, certainly a little exertion wouldn't hurt him, or Ranec. But she avoided both of them. She was confused by their actions, and her feelings, and she wanted some time to think.

Tronie came out of the arched doorway of the lodge, looking harried. She was holding Hartal on one hip and a shallow bone dish piled with baskets and implements on the other. Ayla hurried toward her.

"I help? Hold Hartal?" she asked.

"Oh, would you?" the young mother said, handing the baby over to Ayla. "Everyone has been cooking and making special food today, and I wanted to make something for the feast, too, but I kept getting distracted. And then Hartal woke up. I fed him, but he's not in any mood to go back to sleep yet."

Tronie found a place to spread out near the big outside fireplace. Holding the baby, Ayla watched Tronie pour shelled sunflower seeds into the shallow bone dish from one of the baskets. With a piece of knucklebone – Ayla thought it came from a woolly rhinoceros – Tronie mashed the seeds to a paste. After a few more batches of seeds had been mashed, she filled another basket with water. She picked up two straight bone sticks, which had been carved and shaped for the purpose, and with one hand, she deftly plucked hot cooking stones from the fire. With a hiss and a cloud of steam, she plunked the stones in the water, pulled out cooled ones and added more hot until it came to a boil. Then she added the sunflower nut paste. Ayla was intrigued.

The cooking released the oil from the seeds, and with a large ladle, Tronie skimmed it and poured it into another container, this time made of birchbark. When she had skimmed off as much as she could, she added cracked wild grain of some indistinguishable variety and small black pigweed seeds to the boiling water, flavoring it with herbs, and added more cooking stones to keep it boiling. The birchbark containers were set off to the side to cool until the sunflower seed butter congealed. She gave Ayla a taste from the tip of the ladle, and she decided it was delicious.

"It's especially good on Tulie's loaf cakes," Tronie said. "That's why I wanted to make it. While I had boiling water, I thought I might as well make something for breakfast tomorrow. No one feels much like cooking the morning after a big festival, but children, at least, like to eat. Thanks so much for helping with Hartal."

"No give thanks. Is my pleasure. I not hold baby in long time," Ayla said, and realized it was true. She found herself looking at Hartal closely, comparing him in her mind with the babies of the Clan. Hartal had no brow ridges, but they weren't fully developed in Clan babies, either. His forehead was straighter and his head rounder, but they were not really so very different at this young age, she thought, except that Hartal laughed and giggled and cooed, and Clan babies did not make as many sounds.

The baby started to fuss a bit, when his mother went to wash off the implements. Ayla bounced him on her knee, then changed his position until she was looking at him. She talked to him and watched his interested response. That satisfied him for a while, but not long. When he got ready to cry again, Ayla whistled at him. The sound surprised him and he stopped crying to listen. She whistled again, this time making a birdsong.

Ayla had spent many long afternoons when she was alone in her valley practicing bird whistles and calls. She had become so adept at mimicking birdsong, that certain varieties came to her whistle, but those birds were not unique to the valley.

As she whistled to entertain the baby, a few birds landed nearby, and began pecking at some of the grain and seeds that had fallen from Tronie's baskets. Ayla noticed them, whistled again, and held out a finger. After some initial wariness, one brave finch hopped on her finger. Carefully, with whistles that calmed and intrigued the little creature, Ayla picked it up and brought the bird close for the baby to see. A delighted giggle and a reaching chubby fist scared it off.

Then, to her surprise, Ayla heard applause. The sound of thigh slapping caused her to look up and see the faces of most of the people of the Lion Camp smiling at her.

"How do you do it, Ayla? I know some people can imitate a bird, or an animal, but you do it so well it fools them," Tronie said. "I've never met anyone with so much control over animals."

Ayla blushed, as though she had been caught in the act of doing something… not right, caught in the act of being different. For all the smiles and approval, she felt uncomfortable. She didn't know how to answer Tronie's question. She didn't know how to explain that when you are entirely alone, you have all the time in the world to practice whistling like a bird. When there is no one in the world you can turn to, a horse or even a lion may give you companionship. When you don't know if there is anyone in the world like you, you seek contact with something living however you can.

10

There was a lull in the activities of the Lion Camp in the early afternoon. Though their largest meal of the day was usually around noon, most people skipped the midday meal, or picked at leftovers from the morning, in anticipation of a feast that promised to be delicious for all that it was unplanned. People were relaxing; some were napping, others checked on food now and then, a few were talking quietly, but there was a feeling of excitement in the air and everyone was looking forward to a special evening.

Inside the earthlodge, Ayla and Tronie were listening to Deegie, who was telling them the details of her visit to Branag's Camp, and the arrangements for their joining. Ayla listened with interest at first, but when the two young Mamutoi women began speaking about this relative or that friend, none of whom she knew, she got up, with a comment about checking the ptarmigan, and went out. Deegie's talk of Branag and her coming Matrimonial made Ayla think of her relationship with Jondalar. He had said he loved her, but he had never proposed a joining to her, or spoken of Matrimonials, and she wondered about it.

She went to the pit where her birds were cooking, checked to make sure she could feel heat, then noticed Jondalar with Wymez and Danug off to the side, where they usually worked, away from the paths people normally used. She knew what they were talking about, and even if she hadn't, she could have guessed. The area was littered with broken hunks and sharp chips of flint, and several large nodules of the workable stone were lying on the ground near the three toolmakers. She often wondered how they could spend so much time talking about flint. Certainly they must have said everything there was to say by now.

While she was not an expert, until Jondalar came Ayla had made her own stone tools, which adequately served her needs. When she was young, she had often watched Droog, the clan toolmaker, and learned by copying his techniques. But Ayla had known the first time she watched Jondalar that his skill far surpassed hers, and while there was a similarity in feeling toward the craft, and perhaps even in relative ability, Jondalar's methods and the tools he produced far outstripped the Clan's. She was curious about the methods Wymez used, and had meant to ask if she could watch sometime. She decided this was a good time.

Jondalar was aware of her the moment she came out of the lodge, but he tried not to show it. He was sure she had been avoiding him ever since her sling demonstration on the steppes, and he didn't want to force his attentions on her if she didn't want him around. When she started in their direction, he felt a great knot of anxiety in his stomach, afraid she would change her mind, or that she only seemed to be coming toward them.

"If not disturb, I like to watch toolmaking," Ayla said.

"Of course. Sit down," Wymez said, smiling a welcome.

Jondalar visibly relaxed; his furrowed brow smoothed and the tightness of his jaws eased. Danug tried to say something when she sat down next to him, but her presence rendered him speechless. Jondalar recognized the look of adoration in his eyes, and stifled an indulgent smile. He had developed a real fondness for the youngster, and he knew calf-eyed young love was no threat to him. He could afford to feel a bit like a patronizing older brother.

"Is your technique commonly used, Jondalar?" Wymez asked, obviously continuing a discussion that Ayla had interrupted.

"More or less. Most people detach blades from a prepared core to make into other tools – chisels, knives, scrapers, or points for smaller spears."

"What about bigger spears? Do you hunt mammoth?"

"Some," Jondalar said. "We don't specialize in it the way you do. Points for bigger spears are made out of bone – I like to use the foreleg of deer. A chisel is used to rough it out by cutting grooves in the general outline and going over them until it breaks free. Then it is shaved to the right shape with a scraper made on the side of a blade. They can be brought to a strong, sharp point with wet sandstone."

Ayla, who had helped him make the bone spear points they used, was impressed by their effectiveness. They were long and deadly, and pierced deep when the spears were thrown with force, particularly with the spear-thrower. Much lighter weight than the ones she had used, which were patterned after the heavy spear of the Clan, Jondalar's spears were all meant for throwing, not thrusting.

"A bone point punctures deep," Wymez said. "If you hit a vital spot, it's a quick kill, but there's not much blood. It's harder to get to a vital spot on a mammoth or rhinoceros. The fir is deep, skin is thick, if you get between ribs, there is still a lot of fat and muscle to go through. The eye is a good target, but it's small, and always moving. A mammoth can be killed with a spear in the throat, but that's dangerous. You have to get too close. A flint spear point has sharp edges. It cuts through tough skin easier, and it draws blood, and that weakens an animal. If you can make them bleed, the gut or the bladder is the best place to aim. It's not quite as quick, but a lot safer."

Ayla was fascinated. Toolmaking was interesting enough, but she had never hunted mammoth.

"You are right," Jondalar said, "but how do you make a big spear point straight? No matter what technique you use to detach a blade, it's always curved. That's the nature of the stone. You can't throw a spear with a curved point, you'd lose accuracy, you'd lose penetration, and probably half your force. That's why flint points are small. By the time you pressure flake off enough of the underside to shape a straight point, there isn't much left."

Wymez was smiling, nodding his head in agreement. "That's true, Jondalar, but let me show you something." The older man got a heavy hide-wrapped bundle from behind him and opened it up. He picked up a huge axe head, a gigantolith the size of a sledgehammer, made from a whole nodule of flint. It had a rounded butt, and had been shaped to a rather thick cutting end that came to a point. "You've made something like this, I'm sure."

Jondalar smiled. "Yes, I've made axes, but nothing as big as that. That must be for Talut."

"Yes, I was going to haft this to a long bone for Talut… or maybe Danug," Wymez said, smiling at the young man. "These are used to break mammoth bones or to sever tusks. It takes a powerful man to wield one. Talut handles it like a stick. I think Danug can do the same by now."

"He can. He cut poles for me," Ayla said, looking at Danug with appreciation, which brought on a flush and a shy smile. She, too, had made and used hand axes, but not of that size.

"How do you make an axe?" Wymez continued.

"I usually start by breaking off a thick flake with a hammerstone, and retouching on both sides to give it an edge and a point."

"Ranec's mother's people, the Aterians, make a spear point with bifacial retouch."

"Bifacial? Knapped on both sides like an axe? To get it reasonably straight, you'd have to start with a big slab of a flake, not a fine, thin blade. Wouldn't that be too clumsy for a spear point?"

"It was somewhat thick and heavy, but a definite improvement over an axe. And very effective for the animals they hunted. It's true, though. To pierce a mammoth or a rhino, you need a flint point that is long and straight, and strong, and thin. How would you do it?" Wymez asked.

"Bifacially. It's the only way. On a flake that thick, I'd use flat pressure retouch to remove fine slivers from both sides," Jondalar said thoughtfully, trying to imagine how he would make such a weapon, "but that would take tremendous control."

"Exactly. The problem is control, and the quality of the stone."

"Yes. It would have to be fresh. Dalanar, the man who taught me, lives near an exposed cliff of chalk that bears flint at ground level. Maybe some of his stone would work. But even then, it would be hard. We've made some fine axes, but I don't know how you'd make a decent spear point that way."

Wymez reached for another package wrapped in fine soft leather. He opened it carefully and exposed several flint points.

Jondalar's eyes opened in surprise. He looked up at Wymez, then at Danug, who was smiling with pride for his mentor, then he picked up one of the points. He turned it over in his hands tenderly, almost caressing the beautifully worked stone.

The flint had a slippery feel, a smooth, not-quite-oily quality, and a sheen that glistened from the many facets in the sunlight. The object had the shape of a willow leaf, with near perfect symmetry in all dimensions, and it extended the full length of his hand from the base of his palm to his fingertips. Starting at one end in a point, it spread out to the breadth of four fingers in the middle, then back to a point at the other end. Turning it on edge, Jondalar saw that it did indeed lack the characteristic bowed shape of the blade tools. It was perfectly straight, with a cross section about the thickness of his small finger.

He felt the edge professionally. Very sharp, just slightly denticulated by the scars of the many tiny flakes that had been removed. He ran his fingertips lightly over the surface and felt the small ridges left behind by the many similar tiny flakes that had been detached to give the flint point such a fine, precise shape.

"This is too beautiful to use for a weapon," Jondalar said. "This is a work of art."

"That one is not used for a weapon," Wymez said, pleased by the praise of a fellow craftsman. "I made it as a model to show the technique."

Ayla was craning her neck to look at the exquisitely crafted tools nestled in the soft leather on the ground, not daring to touch. She had never seen such beautifully made points. They were of variable sizes and types. Besides the leaf-shaped ones, there were asymmetrical shouldered points that tapered sharply back on one side to a projecting shank, which would be inserted in a handle so it could be used as a knife, and more symmetrical stemmed points with a centered tang that might be spear points or knives of another kind.

"Would you like to examine them closer?" Wymez asked.

Her eyes gleaming with wonder, she picked each one up, handling them as though they were precious jewels. They very nearly were.

"Flint is… smooth… alive," Ayla said. "Not see flint like this before."

Wymez smiled. "You have discovered the secret, Ayla," he said. "That is what makes these points possible."

"Do you have flint like this nearby?" Jondalar asked, incredulous. "I've never seen any quite like it, either."

"No, I'm afraid not. Oh, we can get good-quality flint. A large Camp to the north lives near a good flint mine. That's where Danug has been. But this stone has been specially treated… by fire."

"By fire!?" Jondalar exclaimed.

"Yes. By fire. Heating changes the stone. Heating is what makes it feel so smooth" – Wymez looked at Ayla – "so alive. And heating is what gives the stone its special qualities." While he was talking, he picked up a nodule of flint that showed definite signs of having been in a fire. It was sooty and charred, and the chalky outer cortex was a much deeper color when he cracked it open with a blow from a hammerstone. "It was an accident the first time. A piece of flint fell in a fireplace. It was a big, hot fire – you know how hot a fire it takes to burn bone?"

Ayla nodded her head knowingly. Jondalar shrugged, he hadn't paid much attention, but since Ayla seemed to know, he was willing to accept it.

"I was going to roll the flint out, but Nezzie decided, since it was there, it would make a good support for a dish to catch drippings from a roast she was cooking. It turned out that the drippings caught fire, and ruined a good ivory platter. I replaced it for her, since it turned out to be such a stroke of good fortune. But I almost discarded the stone at first. It was all burnt like this, and I avoided using it until I was low on material. The first time I cracked it open, I thought it was ruined. Look at it, you can see why," Wymez said, giving them each a piece.

"The flint is darker, and it does have that slick feel," Jondalar said.

"It happened that I was experimenting with Aterian spear points trying to improve on their technique. Since I was just trying out new ideas, I thought it didn't matter if the stone was less than perfect. But as soon as I started working with it, I noticed the difference. It happened shortly after I returned, Ranec was still a boy. I've been perfecting it ever since."

"What kind of difference do you mean?" Jondalar asked.

"You try it, Jondalar, you'll see."

Jondalar picked up his hammerstone, an oval stone, dented and chipped from use, that fit comfortably in his hand, and began knocking off the balance of the chalky cortex in preparation for working it.

"When flint is heated very hot before it is worked," Wymez continued while Jondalar worked, "control over the material is much greater. Very small chips, much finer, thinner, and longer, can be removed by applying pressure. You can make the stone take almost any shape you want."

Wymez wrapped his left hand with a small rag of leather to protect it from the sharp edges, then positioned another piece of flint, recently flaked from one of the burned hunks, in his left hand, to demonstrate. With his right hand, he picked up a short, tapered bone retoucher. He placed the pointed end of the bone against the edge of the flint and pushed with a strong forward and downward motion, and detached a small, long, flat sliver of stone. He held it up. Jondalar took it from him, then experimented on his own, quite obviously surprised and pleased with the results.

"I've got to show this to Dalanar! This is unbelievable! He's improved on some of the processes – he has a natural feel for working with the stone, like you, Wymez. But you can almost shave this stone. This is caused by heating?"

Wymez nodded. "I wouldn't say you can shave it. It's still stone, not quite as easy to shape as bone, but if you know how to work stone, heating makes it easier."

"I wonder what would happen with indirect percussion… have you tried using a piece of bone or antler with a point to direct the force of a blow from a hammerstone? You can get blades that are much longer and thinner that way."

Ayla thought that Jondalar had a natural feel for working with the stone, too. But more than that, she sensed in his enthusiasm and spontaneous desire to share this marvelous discovery with Dalanar, an aching desire to go home.

In her valley, when she had been hesitant about facing the unknown Others, she had thought Jondalar only wished to leave so he could be with other people. She had never quite understood before just how powerful was his desire to return to his home. It came as a revelation, an insight; she knew that he could never be truly happy any other place.

Though she desperately missed her son and the people she loved, Ayla hadn't felt homesickness in Jondalar's sense, as a yearning to go back to a familiar place, where people were known, and customs were comfortable. She had known when she left the Clan she could never return. To them, she was dead. If they saw her, they would think she was a malicious spirit. And now, she knew she would not go back to live with them even if she could. Though she had been with the Lion Camp only a short time, she already felt more comfortable and at home than she had in all the years she lived with the Clan. Iza had been right. She was not Clan. She was born to the Others.

Lost in thought, Ayla had missed some further discussion. Hearing Jondalar mention her name brought her back.

"…I think Ayla's technique must be close to theirs. That's where she learned. I have seen some of their tools, but I had never seen them made before she showed me. They are not without skill, but it's a long step from preshaping a core to an intermediary punch, and that makes the difference between a heavy flake tool and a fine, light blade tool."

Wymez smiled and nodded. "Now, if we could only find a way to make a blade straight. No matter how you do it, the edge of a knife is never quite as sharp after it's been retouched."

"I've thought about that problem," Danug said, making a contribution to the discussion. "How about cutting a groove in bone or antler, and gluing in bladelets? Small enough to be almost straight?"

Jondalar thought about it for a moment. "How would you make them?"

"Couldn't you start with a small core?" Danug suggested, a little tentatively.

"That might work, Danug, but a small core could be hard to work with," Wymez said. "I've thought about starting with a bigger blade and breaking it into smaller ones."

They were still talking about flint, Ayla realized. They never seemed to tire of it. The material and its potential never ceased to fascinate them. The more they learned, the more it stimulated their interest. She could appreciate flint and toolmaking, and she thought the points Wymez had shown them were finer than any she had ever seen, as much for their beauty as for their use. But she had never heard the subject discussed in such exhaustive detail. Then, she remembered her fascination with medical lore and healing magic. The times she had spent with Iza, and Uba, when the medicine woman was teaching them, were among her happiest memories.

Ayla noticed Nezzie coming out of the lodge, and got up to see if she could help. Though the three men smiled and made comments as she left, she didn't think they would even notice that she had gone.

That wasn't entirely true. Though none of the men made comments out loud, there was a break in their conversation as they watched her leave.

She's a beautiful young woman, Wymez thought. Intelligent, and knowledgeable, and interested in many things. She'd bring a high Bride Price, if she were Mamutoi. Think what status she'd bring to a mate, and pass on to her children.

Danug's thoughts ran along much the same lines, though they were not as clearly formed in his mind. Vague ideas about Bride Price and Matrimonials and even co-mating occurred to him, but he didn't think he would stand a chance. Mostly, he just wanted to be around her.

Jondalar wanted her even more. If he could have thought of a reasonable excuse, he would have gotten up and followed her. Yet he feared to clutch too tight. He remembered his feelings when women tried too hard to make him love them. Instead it had made him want to avoid them, and feel pity. He did not want Ayla's pity. He wanted her love.

A choking gorge of bile rose in his throat when he saw the dark-skinned man come out of the earthlodge, and smile at her. He tried to swallow it down, to control the anger and frustration he felt. He had never known such jealousy, and he hated himself for it. He was sure Ayla would hate him, or worse, pity him, if she knew how he felt. He reached for a large nodule of flint, and with his hammerstone, he smashed it open. The piece was flawed, shot through with the white crumbly chalk of its outer cortex, but Jondalar kept hitting the stone, breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces.

Ranec saw Ayla coming from the direction of the flint-knapping area. The growing excitement and attraction he felt every time he saw her could not be denied. He had been drawn from the beginning to the perfection of form she presented to his aesthetic sense, not just as a beautiful woman to look at, but in the subtle, unstudied grace of her movements. His eye for such detail was sharp, and he could not detect the slightest posturing or affectation. She carried herself with a self-possession, an unafraid confidence, that seemed so completely natural he felt she must have been born with it, and it generated a quality he could only think of as presence.

He flashed a warm smile. It wasn't a smile that could easily be ignored, and Ayla returned it with matching warmth.

"Have your ears been filled with flint-talk?" Ranec said, making the last two words into one, and thereby giving the phrase a slightly derogatory meaning. Ayla detected the nuance, but wasn't entirely sure of its meaning, though she thought it was meant to be humorous, a joke.

"Yes. They talk flint. Making blades. Making tools. Points. Wymez make beautiful points."

"Ah, he brought out his treasures, did he. You are right, they are beautiful. I'm not always sure if he knows it, but Wymez is more than a craftsman. He is an artist."

A frown creased Ayla's forehead. She remembered he had used that word to describe her when she used her sling, and she wasn't sure if she understood the word the way he used it.

"Are you artist?" she asked.

He made a wry grimace. Her question had touched at the heart of an issue about which he had strong feelings.

His people believed that the Mother had first created a spirit world, and the spirits of all things in it were perfect. The spirits then produced living copies of themselves, to populate the ordinary world. The spirit was the model, the pattern from which all things were derived, but no copy could be as perfect as the original; not even the spirits themselves could make perfect copies, that was why each was different.

People were unique, they were closer to the Mother than other spirits. The Mother gave birth to a copy of Herself and called her Spirit Woman, then caused a Spirit Man to be born of her womb, just as each man was born of woman. Then the Great Mother caused the spirit of the perfect woman to mingle with the spirit of the perfect man, and so give birth to many different spirit children. But She Herself chose which man's spirit would mingle with a woman's before She breathed Her life force into the woman's mouth to cause pregnancy. And to a few of Her children, women and men, the Mother gave special gifts.

Ranec referred to himself as a carver, a maker of objects carved in the likeness of living or spiritual things. Carvings were useful objects. They personified living spirits, made them visual, realizable, and they were essential tools for certain rites, necessary for the ceremonies conducted by the mamuti. Those who could create such objects were held in great esteem; they were gifted artists, whom the Mother had chosen.

Many people thought that all carvers, indeed, all people who could create or decorate objects to make them something more than simply utilitarian, were artists, but in Ranec's opinion, not all artists were equally gifted, or perhaps they didn't give equal care to their work. The animals and figures they made were crude. He felt such representations were an insult to the spirits, and to the Mother who created them.

In Ranec's eye the finest and most perfect example of anything was beautiful, and anything beautiful was the finest and most perfect example of spirit; it was the essence of it. That was his religion. Beyond that, at the core of his aesthetic soul, he felt that beauty had an intrinsic value of its own, and he believed there was a potential for beauty in everything. While some activities or objects could be simply functional, he felt that anyone who came close to achieving perfection in any activity was an artist, and the results contained the essence of beauty. But the art was as much in the activity as in the results. Works of art were not just the finished product, but the thought, the action, the process that created them.

Ranec sought out beauty, almost as a holy quest, with his own skilled hands but more with his innately sensitive eye. He felt a need to surround himself with it, and he was beginning to view Ayla, herself, as a work of art, as the finest, most perfect expression of woman he could imagine. It was not just her appearance that made her beautiful. Beauty was not a static picture; it was essence, it was spirit, it was that which animated. It was best expressed in movement, behavior, accomplishment. A beautiful woman was a complete and dynamic woman. Though he did not say it in so many words, Ayla was coming to represent for him a perfect incarnation of the original Spirit Woman. She was the essence of woman, the essence of beauty.

The dark man with the laughing eyes and the ironic wit, which he had learned to use to mask his deep longings, strove to create perfection and beauty in his own work. For his efforts, he was acclaimed by his people as the finest carver, an artist of true distinction, but, as with many perfectionists, he was never quite satisfied with his own creations. He would not refer to himself as an artist.

"I am a carver," he said to Ayla. Then, because he saw her puzzlement, he added, "Some people will call any carver an artist." He hesitated a moment, wondering how she would judge his work, then said, "Would you like to see some of my carvings?"

"Yes," she said.

The simple directness of her reply stopped him for a moment, then he threw his head back and laughed out loud. Of course, what else would she say? His eyes crinkling with delight, he beckoned her into the lodge.

Jondalar watched them go through the arched entrance together and felt a heaviness descend upon him. He closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest in dejection.

The tall and handsome man had never suffered for lack of female attention, but since he lacked understanding of the quality that made him so attractive, he had no faith in it. He was a maker of tools, more comfortable with the physical than the metaphysical, better at applying his considerable intelligence to understanding the technical aspects of pressure and percussion on homogeneous crystalline silica – flint. He perceived the world in physical terms.

He expressed himself physically as well; he was better with his hands than with words. Not that he was inarticulate, just not especially gifted with words. He had learned to tell a story well enough, but he wasn't quick with glib answers and humorous retorts. He was a serious and private man, who didn't like to talk about himself, though he was a sensitive listener, which attracted confessions and confidences from others. At home, he had been renowned as a fine craftsman, but the same hands that could so carefully shape hard stone into fine tools were also skilled in the ways of a woman's body. It was another expression of his physical nature, and, though not as openly, he had been equally renowned for it. Women pursued him, and jokes were made of his "other" craft.

It was a skill he had learned as he had learned to shape flint. He knew where to touch, was receptive and responsive to subtle signals, and he derived pleasure from giving Pleasure. His hands, his eyes, his entire body, spoke more eloquently than any words he ever uttered. If Ranec had been a woman, he would have called him an artist.

Jondalar had developed genuine affection and warmth for some women, and enjoyed them all physically, but he did not love, until he met Ayla, and he did not feel confident that she truly loved him. How could she? She had no basis for comparison. He was the only man she knew until they came here. He recognized the carver as a man of distinction and considerable charm, and saw the signs of his growing attraction to Ayla. He knew that if any man could, Ranec was capable of winning Ayla's love. Jondalar had traveled half the world before he found a woman he could love. Now that he had finally found her, would he lose her so soon?

But did he deserve to lose her? Could he bring her back with him knowing how his people felt about women like her? For all his jealousy, he was beginning to wonder if he was the right person for her. He told himself that he wanted to be fair to her, but in his innermost heart he wondered if he could bear the stigma of loving the wrong woman, again.

Danug saw Jondalar's anguish and looked at Wymez with troubled eyes. Wymez only nodded knowingly. He, too, had once loved a woman of exotic beauty, but Ranec was the son of his hearth, and overdue in finding a woman to settle down and raise a family with.

Ranec led Ayla to the Hearth of the Fox. Though she had passed through it several times every day, she had studiously avoided curious looks at the private quarters; it was one custom from her life with the Clan that applied to the Lion Camp. In the open house plan of the earthlodge, privacy was not so much a matter of closed doors as of consideration, respect, and tolerance for each other.

"Sit down," he said, motioning her to a bed platform strewn with soft, luxurious furs. She looked around, now that it was acceptable to satisfy her curiosity. Though they shared a hearth, the two men who lived on opposite sides of the central passageway had living spaces that were uniquely individual.

Across the fireplace, the toolmaker's area had a look of indifferent simplicity. There was a bed platform with a stuffed pad and furs, and a leather drape haphazardly tied above that looked as though it hadn't been untied in years. Some clothing hung from pegs, and more was piled on a section of the bed platform extending along the wall beyond the partition at the head of the bed.

The working area took up most of the room, defined by chunks, broken pieces, and chips of flint surrounding a mammoth foot bone used as both a seat and an anvil. Various stone and bone hammers and retouchers were in evidence on the extension of the bed platform at the foot. The only decorative objects were an ivory figurine of the Mother in a niche on the wall, and hanging next to it, an intricately decorated girdle from which a dried and withered grass skirt hung. Ayla knew without asking that it had belonged to Ranec's mother.

In contrast, the carver's side was tastefully sumptuous. Ranec was a collector, but a very selective one. Everything was chosen with care, and displayed to show its best qualities and to complement the whole with a textural richness. The furs on the bed invited touching, and gratified the touch with exceptional softness. The drapes on both sides, hanging in careful folds, were velvety buckskin of a deep tan shade, and smelled faintly, but pleasantly, of the pine smoke that gave them their color. The floor was covered with mats of some aromatic grass exquisitely woven with colorful designs.

On an extension of the bed platform were baskets of various sizes and shapes; the larger ones held clothing arranged to show the decorative beadwork or feather and fur designs. In some of the baskets and hanging from pegs were carved ivory armbands and bracelets, and necklaces of animal teeth, freshwater mollusc shells, seashells, cylindrical lime tubes, natural and colored ivory beads and pendants, and prominent among them, amber. A large flake of mammoth tusk, incised with unusual geometric designs, was on the wall. Even hunting weapons and outer clothing that hung from pegs added to the overall effect.

The more she looked, the more she saw, but the objects that seemed to reach for and hold her attention were a beautifully made ivory Mother figure in a niche, and the carvings near his work area.

Ranec watched her, noting where her eyes stayed, and knowing what she was seeing. When her eyes settled on him, he smiled. He sat down at his workbench, the lower leg bone of a mammoth sunk into the floor so that the flat, slightly concave knee joint reached just about chest high when he sat on a mat on the floor. On the curved horizontal work surface, amid a variety of burns, chisellike flint tools which he used for carving, was an unfinished carving of a bird.

"This is the piece I'm working on," he said, watching her expression as he held it out to her.

She carefully cradled the ivory sculpture in her hands, looked at it, then turned it over and examined it closer. Then looking puzzled, she turned it one way, and then the other again. "Is bird when I look this way," she said to Ranec, "but now" – she held it up the other way – "is woman!"

"Wonderful! You saw it right away. It's something I've been trying to work out. I wanted to show the transformation of the Mother, Her spiritual form. I want to show Her when She takes on Her bird form to fly from here to the spirit world, but still as the Mother, as woman. To incorporate both forms at once!"

Ranec's dark eyes flashed, he was so excited he almost couldn't speak fast enough. Ayla smiled at his enthusiasm. It was a side of him she hadn't seen before. He usually seemed much more detached, even when he laughed. For a moment, Ranec reminded her of Jondalar when he was developing the idea for the spear-thrower. She frowned at the thought. Those summer days in the valley seemed so long ago. Now Jondalar almost never smiled, or if he did, he was angry the next moment. She had a sudden feeling that Jondalar would not like her to be there, talking to Ranec, hearing his pleasure and excitement, and that made her unhappy, and a little angry.

11

"Ayla, there you are," Deegie said, passing through the Fox Hearth. "We're going to start the music. Come along. You, too, Ranec."

Deegie had collected most of the Lion Camp on her way through. Ayla noticed that she carried the mammoth skull and Tornec the scapula which was painted with red ordered lines and geometric shapes, and that Deegie had used the unfamiliar word again. Ayla and Ranec followed them outside.

Wispy clouds raced across a darkening sky to the north, and the wind picked up, parting the fur on hoods and parkas, but none of the people gathering in a circle seemed to notice. The outdoor fireplace, which had been constructed with mounds of soil and a few rocks to take advantage of the prevailing north wind, burned hotter as more bone and some wood was added, but the fire was an invisible presence overpowered by the coruscating glow descending in the west.

Some large bones that seemed to have been randomly left lying around took on a planned purpose as Deegie and Tornec joined Mamut and seated themselves on them. Deegie placed the marked skull down so that it was held off the ground, supported front and back by other large bones. Tornec held the painted scapula in an upright position, and tapped it in various places with the hammer-shaped implement made of antler, adjusting the position slightly.

Ayla was astounded at the sounds they produced, different from the sounds she had heard inside. There was a sense of drum rhythms, but this sound had distinct tones, like nothing she had heard before, yet it had a hauntingly familiar quality. In variability, the tones reminded her of voice sounds, like the sounds she sometimes hummed quietly to herself, yet more distinct. Was that music?

Suddenly a voice sang out. Ayla turned and saw Barzec, his head thrown back, making a loud ululating cry that pierced the air. He dropped to a low vibrato that evoked a lump of feeling in Ayla's throat, and ended with a sharp, high-pitched burst of air, that somehow managed to leave a question hanging. In response, the three musicians began a rapid beating on the mammoth bones, which repeated the sound Barzec had made, matching it in tone and feeling in a way that Ayla couldn't explain.

Soon others joined in singing, not with words, but with tones and voice sounds, accompanied by the mammoth bone instruments. After a time, the music changed and gradually took on a different quality. It became slower, more deliberate, and the tones created a feeling of sadness. Fralie began to sing in a high, sweet voice, this time with words. She told a story of a woman who lost her mate, and whose child had died. It touched Ayla deeply, made her think of Durc, and brought tears to her eyes. When she looked up, she saw she was not alone, but she was most moved when she noticed Crozie, impassively staring ahead, her old face expressionless, but with rivulets of tears streaming down her cheeks.

As Fralie repeated the last phrases of the song, Tronie joined in, then Latie. On the next repetition, the phrase was varied, and Nezzie and Tulie, whose voice was a rich, deep contralto, sang with them. The phrase varied once more, more voices were added, and the music changed character again. It became a story of the Mother, and a legend of the people, the spirit world and their beginnings. When the women came to the place where Spirit Man was born, the men joined in, and the music alternated between the women's and the men's voices, and a friendly spirit of competition entered in.

The music became faster, more rhythmic. In a burst of exuberance, Talut pulled off his outer fur and landed in the center of the group with feet moving, fingers snapping. Amid laughter, shouts of approval, feet stomping and thigh slapping, Talut was encouraged in an athletic dance of kicking feet and high leaps in time to the music. Not to be outdone, Barzec joined him. As they were both tiring, Ranec entered the circle. His fist-stepping dance, displaying more intricate movements, brought on more shouts and applause. Before he stopped, he called for Wymez, who hung back at first, but then, encouraged by the people, began a dance whose movements had a distinctly different character to them.

Ayla was laughing and shouting with the rest, enjoying the music, singing, and dancing, but mostly the enthusiasm and fun, which filled her with good feelings. Druwez jumped in with a nimble display of acrobatics, then Brinan tried to copy him. His dance lacked the polish of his older brother's, but he was applauded for his efforts, which encouraged Crisavec, Fralie's oldest son, to join him. Then Tusie decided she wanted to dance. Barzec, with a doting smile, took both her hands in his and danced with her. Talut, taking a cue from Barzec, found Nezzie and brought her into the circle. Jondalar tried to coax Ayla to join, but she held back, then, noticing Latie looking with glistening eyes at the dancers, nudged him to see her.

"Will you show me the steps, Latie?" he asked.

She gave the tall man a grateful smile, Talut's smile, Ayla noted again, and took both his hands as they moved toward the others. She was slender and tall for her twelve years, and moved gracefully. Comparing her with the other women with an outsider's vision, Ayla thought she would be a very attractive woman one day.

More women joined the dance, and as the music changed character again, nearly everyone was moving in time to it. People began singing, and Ayla felt herself drawn forward to join hands and form a circle. With Jondalar on one side and Talut on the other, she moved forward and back and round and round, dancing and singing, as the music pushed them faster and faster.

Finally, with a last shout, the music ended. People were laughing, talking, catching their breath, the musicians as well as the dancers.

"Nezzie! Isn't that food ready yet? I've been smelling it all day, and I'm starving!" Talut shouted.

"Look at him," Nezzie said, nodding toward her great hulk of a man. "Doesn't he look like he's starving?" People chuckled. "Yes, the food is ready. We've just been waiting until everyone was ready to eat."

"Well, I'm ready," Talut replied.

While some people went to get their dishes, the ones who had cooked brought out the food. Each person's dishes were individual possessions. Plates were often flat pelvic or shoulder bones from bison or deer, cups and bowls might be tightly woven, waterproof small baskets or sometimes the cup-shaped frontal bones of deer with the antlers removed. Clamshells and other bivalves, traded for, along with salt, from people who visited or lived near the sea, were used for smaller dishes, scoops, and the smallest ones for spoons.

Mammoth pelvic bones were trays and platters. Food was served with large ladles carved from bone or ivory or antler or horn, and with straight pieces casually manipulated like tongs. Smaller straight tongs were used for eating along with the flint eating knives. Salt, rare and special so far inland, was served separately from a rare and beautiful mollusc shell.

Nezzie's stew was as rich and delicious as the aroma had proclaimed it would be, complemented by Tulie's small loaf cakes of ground grain which had been dropped in the boiling stew to cook. Though two birds did not go far in feeding the hungry Camp, everyone sampled Ayla's ptarmigan. Cooked in the ground oven, it was so tender it fell apart. Her combination of seasonings, though unusual to the palates of the Mamutoi, was well received by the Lion Camp. They ate it all. Ayla decided she liked the grain stuffing.

Ranec brought out his dish near the end of the meal, surprising everyone because it was not his usual specialty. Instead he passed around crisp little cakes. Ayla sampled one, then reached for another.

"How you make this?" she asked. "Is so good."

"Unless we can get a contest going every time, I don't think they will be too easy to make again. I used the powdered grain, mixed it with rendered mammoth fat, then added blueberries and talked Nezzie out of a little of her honey, and cooked it on hot rocks. Wymez said my mother's people used boar's fat to cook with, but he wasn't sure how. Since I don't remember even seeing a boar, I thought I'd settle for mammoth fat."

"Taste is same, almost," Ayla said, "but nothing taste like this. Disappears in mouth." Then she looked speculatively at the man with brown skin and black eyes and tight curly hair, who was, in spite of his exotic appearance, as much a Mamutoi of the Lion Camp as anyone. "Why you cook?"

He laughed. "Why not? There are only two of us at the Hearth of the Fox, and I enjoy it, though I'm glad enough to eat from Nezzie's fire most of the time. Why do you ask?"

"Men of the Clan not cook."

"A lot of men don't, if they don't have to."

"No, men of the Clan not able to cook. Not know how. Not have memories for cooking." Ayla wasn't sure if she was making herself clear, but Talut came then pouring drinks of his fermented brew, and she noticed Jondalar eying her, trying not to look upset. She held out a bone cup and watched Talut fill it with bouza. She hadn't liked it very much the first time she tasted it, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it so much she thought she'd try it again.

After Talut had poured for everyone, he picked up his plate and went back for a third helping of stew.

"Talut! Are you going back for more?" Nezzie said, in the not-quite-scolding tone that Ayla was coming to recognize as Nezzie's way of saying she was pleased with the big headman.

"But you've outdone yourself. This is the best stew I've ever eaten."

"Exaggerating again. You're saying that so I won't call you a glutton."

"Now, Nezzie," Talut said, putting his dish down. Everyone was smiling, giving each other knowing looks. "When I say you're the best, I mean you're the best." He picked her up and nuzzled her neck.

"Talut! You big bear. Put me down."

He did as he was bid, but fondled her breast and nibbled an earlobe. "I think you're right. Who needs more stew? I think I'll finish off dinner with you. Didn't I get a promise earlier?" he replied, with feigned innocence.

"Talut! You're as bad as a bull in heat!"

"First I'm a wolverine, then I'm a bear, now I'm an aurochs." He bellowed a laugh. "But you're the lioness. Come to my hearth," he said, making motions as if he was going to pick her up and carry her off to the lodge.

Suddenly she gave in and laughed. "Oh, Talut. How dull life would be without you!"

Talut grinned, and the love and understanding in their eyes when they looked at each other spread its warmth. Ayla felt the glow, and deep in her soul she sensed that their closeness had come from learning to accept each other as they were, over a lifetime of shared experiences.

But their contentment brought disquieting thoughts to her. Would she ever know such acceptance? Would she ever understand anyone so well? She sat mulling over her thoughts, staring out across the river, and shared a quiet moment with the others as the broad empty landscape staged an awesome display.

The clouds to the north had expanded their territory by the time the Lion Camp finished the feast, and presented their reflecting surfaces to a rapidly retreating sun. In a flagrant blaze of glory, they proclaimed their triumph across the far horizon, flaunting their victory in blaring banners of orange and scarlet – careless of the dark ally, the other side of day. The lofty show of flying colors, flamboyant in its brazen splendor, was a short-lived celebration. The inexorable march of night sapped the volatile brilliance, and subdued the fiery tones to sanguine shades of carmine and carnelian. Flaming pink faded to smoky lavender, was overcome by ash purple, and finally surrendered to sooty black.

The wind increased with the coming night, and the warmth and shelter of the earthlodge beckoned. In the fading light, individual dishes were scoured by each person with sand and rinsed with water. The balance of Nezzie's stew was poured into a bowl and the large cooking hide was cleaned the same way, then hung over the frame to dry. Inside, outer clothing was pulled off and hung on pegs, and fireplaces were stoked and fed.

Tronie's baby, Hartal, fed and contented, went to sleep quickly, but three-year-old Nuvie, struggling to keep her eyes open, wanted to join the others who were beginning to congregate at the Mammoth Hearth. Ayla picked her up and held her when she toddled over, then carried her back to Tronie, sound asleep, before the young mother even left her hearth.

At the Hearth of the Crane, though he had eaten from his mother's dish, Ayla noticed that Fralie's two-year-old son, Tasher, wanted to nurse, then fussed and whined, which convinced Ayla that his mother's milk was gone. He had just fallen asleep when an argument erupted between Crozie and Frebec and woke him. Fralie, too tired to spend energy on anger, picked him up and held him, but seven-year-old Crisavec had a scowl on his face.

He left with Brinan and Tusie when they came through. They found Rugie and Rydag, and all five children, who were near the same age, immediately began talking with words and hand signs, and giggling. They crowded onto a vacant bed platform together next to the one shared by Ayla and Jondalar.

Druwez and Danug were huddled together near the Fox Hearth. Latie was standing nearby, but either they didn't see her or weren't talking to her. Ayla watched her turn her back on the boys finally and, with her head down, shuffle slowly toward the younger children. The girl was not yet a young woman, Ayla guessed, but not far from it. It was a time when girls wanted other girls to talk to, but there were no girls her age at the Lion Camp, and the boys were ignoring her.

"Latie, you sit with me?" she asked. Latie brightened and sat beside Ayla.

The rest of the Aurochs Hearth came through the long-house along the passageway. Tulie and Barzec joined Talut, who was conferring with Mamut. Deegie sat on the other side of Latie, and smiled at her.

"Where's Druwez?" she asked. "I always knew if I wanted to find him, I just had to find you."

"Oh, he's talking to Danug," Latie said. "They're always together now. I was so glad when my brother came back, I thought all three of us would have so much to talk about. But they just want to talk to each other."

Deegie and Ayla caught each other's eye, and a knowing glance passed between them. The time had come when the friendships made as children needed to be looked at in a new light, and rearranged into the patterns of adult relationships when they would know each other as women and men, but it could be a confusing, lonely time. Ayla had been excluded and alienated, one way or another, for most of her life. She understood what it meant to be lonely, even when surrounded by people who loved her. Later, in her valley, she had found a way to ease a more desperate loneliness, and she recalled the yearning and excitement in the girl's eyes whenever she looked at the horses.

Ayla looked at Deegie, then at Latie to include her in the conversation. "This is so busy day. Many days so busy. I need help, could help me, Latie?" Ayla asked.

"Help you? Of course. What do you want me to do?"

"Before, every day I brush horses, go for ride. Now, I not have so much time, but horses need. Could help me? I show you."

Latie's eyes grew big and round. "You want me to help you take care of the horses?" she asked in a surprised whisper. "Oh, Ayla, could I?"

"Yes. As long as I am stay here, would be so much help," Ayla replied.

Everyone had crowded into the Mammoth Hearth. Talut and Tulie and several others were talking about the bison hunt with Mamut. The old man had made the Search, and they were discussing whether he should Search again. Since the hunt had been so successful, they wondered if another would be possible soon. He agreed to try.

The big headman passed around more of the bouza, the fermented drink he had made from the starch of cattail roots, while Mamut was preparing himself for the Search, and filled Ayla's cup. She drank most of the fermented brew he had given her outside, but felt a little guilty for throwing some away. This time, she smelled it, swished it around a few times, then took a deep breath and swallowed it down. Talut smiled and filled her cup again. She returned an insipid smile, and drank it, too. He filled her cup once more when he passed by and found it empty. She didn't want it, but it was too late to refuse. She closed her eyes and gulped the strong liquid. She was getting more used to the taste, but she still couldn't understand why everyone seemed to like it so much.

While she was waiting, a dizziness came over her, her ears buzzed, and her perceptions grew foggy. She didn't notice when Tornec began a rhythmic tonal beating on the mammoth shoulder bone; it seemed instead to have happened inside her. She shook her head and tried to pay attention. She concentrated on Mamut and watched him swallow something, and had a vague feeling that it wasn't safe. She wanted to stop him, but stayed where she was. He was Mamut, he must know what he was doing.

The tall, thin, old man with the white beard and the long white hair sat cross-legged behind another skull drum. He picked up an antler hammer and after a pause to listen, played along with Tornec, then began a chanting song. The chanting was picked up by others, and soon most of the people were deeply involved in a mesmerizing sequence that consisted of repetitive phrases sung in a pulsating beat with little change in tone, alternating with arrhythmic drumming that had more tonal variation than the voices. Another drum player joined them, but Ayla only noticed that Deegie was not beside her any more.

The pounding of the drums matched the pounding in Ayla's head. Then she thought she heard more than just the chanting and the beating drums. The changing tones, the various cadences, the alterations of pitch and volume in the drumming, began to suggest voices, speaking voices, saying something she could almost, but not quite, understand. She tried to concentrate, strained to listen, but her mind wasn't clear and the harder she tried, the further from comprehension the voices of the drums seemed to be. Finally she let go, gave in to the whirling dizziness that seemed to engulf her.

Then she heard the drums, and suddenly she was swept away.

She was traveling, fast, across the bleak and frozen plains. In the empty landscape stretched out below her, all but the most distinctive features were shrouded in a veil of wind-blown snow. Slowly, she became aware she was not alone. A fellow traveler viewed the same scene, and in some inexplicable way, exercised a degree of control over their speed and direction.

Then, faintly, like a distant aural beacon, a point of reference, she heard voices chanting and drums talking. In a moment of clarity, she heard a word, spoken in an eerie staccato throbbing that approximated, if it did not exactly reproduce, the pitch, tone, and resonance of a human voice.

"Zzzlloooow." Then again, "Zzllooow heeerrrr."

She felt their speed slow, and looking down, saw a few bison huddled in the lee of a high riverbank. The huge animals stood in stoic resignation in the driving blizzard, snow clinging to their shaggy coats, their heads lowered as though weighted down by the massive black horns that extended out. Only the steam blowing from the nostrils of their distinctively blunted noses gave a hint that they were living creatures and not features of the land.

Ayla felt herself drawn closer, close enough to count them and to notice individual animals. A young one moved a few steps to crowd against her mother; an old cow, whose left horn was broken off at the tip, shook her head and snorted; a bull pawed the ground, pushing snow aside, then nibbled on the exposed clump of withered grass. In the distance a howl could be heard; the wind, perhaps.

The view expanded again as they pulled back, and she caught a glimpse of silent four-legged shapes moving with stealth and purpose. The river flowed between twin outcrops below the huddled bison. Upstream, the floodplain where the bison had sought shelter, narrowed between high banks and the river rushed through a steep gorge of jagged rock, then gushed out in rapids and small waterfalls. The only outlet was a steep rocky defile, a runoff for spring floods, that led back up to the steppes.

"Hhooomme."

The long vowel of the word resonated in Ayla's ear with intensified vibrations, and then she was moving again, streaking over the plains.

"Ayla! Are you all right?" Jondalar said.

Ayla felt a spastic jump wrench her body, then opened her eyes to see a pair of startling blue ones looking at her with a worried frown.

"Uh… yes. I think so."

"What happened? Latie said you fell back on the bed, then got stiff and then started jerking. After that you went to sleep, and no one could wake you."

"I don't know…"

"You came with me, of course, Ayla." They both turned at Mamut's voice.

"I go with you? Where?" Ayla asked.

The old man gave her a searching look. She's frightened, he thought. No wonder, she didn't expect it. It's fearful enough the first time when you're prepared for it. But I didn't think to prepare her. I didn't suspect her natural ability would be so great. She didn't even take the somuti. Her gift is too powerful. She must be trained, for her own protection, but how much can I tell her now? I don't want her to think of her Talent as a burden she must bear all her life. I want her to know it is a gift, even though it carries a heavy responsibility… but She doesn't usually bestow Her Gifts on those who cannot accept them. The Mother must have a special purpose for this young woman.

"Where do you think we went, Ayla?" the old shaman asked.

"Not sure. Outside… I was in blizzard, and I see bison… with broken horn… by river."

"You saw clearly. I was surprised when I felt you with me. But I should have realized it might happen, I knew you had potential. You have a gift, Ayla, but you need training, guidance."

"A gift?" Ayla asked, sitting up. She felt a chill, and, for an instant, a shock of fear. She didn't want any gifts. She only wanted a mate and children, like Deegie, or any other woman. "What kind of gift, Mamut?"

Jondalar saw her face pale. She looks so scared, and so vulnerable, he thought, putting his arm around her. He wanted only to hold her, to protect her from harm, to love her. Ayla leaned into his warmth and felt her apprehension lessen. Mamut noted the subtle interactions and added them to his considerations about this young woman of mystery who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Why, he wondered, in their midst?

He didn't believe it was chance that led Ayla to the Lion Camp. Accident or coincidence did not figure largely in his conception of the world. The Mamut was convinced that everything had a purpose, a directing guidance, a reason for being, whether or not he understood what it was, and he was sure the Mother had a reason for directing Ayla to them. He had made some astute guesses about her, and now that he knew more about her background, he wondered if part of the reason she was sent to them was because of him. He knew it was likely that he, more than anyone, would understand her.

"I'm not sure what kind of gift, Ayla. A gift from the Mother can take many forms. It seems you have a gift for Healing. Probably your way with animals is a gift as well."

Ayla smiled. If the healing magic she learned from Iza was a gift, she didn't mind that. And if Whinney and Racer and Baby were gifts from the Mother, she was grateful. She already believed the Spirit of the Great Cave Lion had sent them to her. Maybe the Mother had something to do with it, too.

"And from what I learned today, I would say you have a gift for Searching. The Mother has been lavish with Her Gifts to you," Mamut said.

Jondalar's forehead furrowed with concern. Too much attention from Doni was not necessarily desirable. He had been told often enough how well favored he was; it hadn't brought him much happiness. Suddenly he remembered the words of the old white-haired Healer who had Served the Mother for the people of the Sharamudoi. The Shamud had told him once that the Mother favored him so much no woman could refuse him, not even the Mother Herself could refuse him – that was his gift – but warned him to be wary. Gifts from the Mother were not an unmixed blessing, they put one in Her debt. Did that mean Ayla was in Her debt?

Ayla wasn't sure if she liked the last gift very much. "I not know Mother, or gifts. I think Cave Lion, my totem, send Whinney."

Mamut looked surprised. "The Cave Lion is your totem?"

Ayla noticed his expression, and recalled how difficult it had been for the Clan to believe that a female could have a powerful male totem protecting her. "Yes. Mog-ur told me. Cave Lion choose me, and make mark. I show you," Ayla explained. She untied the waist thong of the legged garment, and lowered the flap enough to expose her left thigh, and the four parallel scars made by a sharp claw, evidence of her encounter with a cave lion.

The marks were old, long healed, Mamut noted. She must have been quite young. How had a young girl escaped from a cave lion? "How did you get that mark?" he asked.

"I not remember… but have dream."

Mamut was interested. "A dream?" he encouraged.

"Comes back, sometime. I am in dark place, small place. Light comes in small opening. Then" – she closed her eyes and swallowed – "something block light. I am frightened. Then big lion claw come in, sharp nails. I scream, wake up."

"I have had a dream about cave lions recently," Mamut said. "That's why I was so interested in your dream. I dreamed of a pride of cave lions, sunning themselves out on the steppes on a hot summer day. There are two cubs. One of them, a she-cub, tries to play with the male, a big one with a reddish mane. She reaches up with a paw, and bats his face, gently, more like she just wants to touch him. The big male shoves her aside, and then holds her down with a huge forearm, and washes her with his long raspy tongue."

Both Ayla and Jondalar listened, entranced.

"Then, suddenly," Mamut continued, "there is a disturbance. A herd of reindeer is running straight at them. At first I thought they were attacking – dreams often have deeper meaning than they seem – but these deer are in a panic, and when they see the lions, they scatter. In the process, the she-cub's brother gets trampled. When it's over, the lioness tries to get the little male to get up, but she can't revive him, so finally she leaves with just the little she-cub and the rest of the pride."

Ayla was sitting in a state of shock.

"What's wrong, Ayla?" Mamut asked.

"Baby! Baby was brother. I chase reindeer, hunting. Later, I find little cub, hurt. Bring to cave. Heal him. Raise him like baby."

"The cave lion you raised had been trampled by reindeer?" It was Mamut's turn to feel shock. This could not be merely coincidence or similarity of environment. This had powerful significance. He had felt the cave lion dream should be interpreted for its symbolic values, but there was more meaning here than he had realized. This went beyond Searching, beyond his previous experience. He would have to think deeply about it, and he felt he needed to know more. "Ayla, if you wouldn't mind answering…"

They were interrupted by loud arguing.

"You don't care about Fralie! You didn't even pay a decent Bride Price!" Crozie screeched.

"And you don't care about anything but your status! I'm tired of hearing about her low Bride Price. I paid what you asked when no one else would."

"What do you mean, no one else would? You begged me for her. You said you'd take care of her and her children. You said you'd welcome me to your hearth…"

"Haven't I? Haven't I done that?" Frebec shouted.

"You call this making me welcome? When have you shown your respect? When have you honored me as a mother?"

"When have you shown me respect? Whatever I say, you argue about."

"If you ever said something intelligent, no one would need to argue. Fralie deserves more. Look at her, full of the Mother's blessing."

"Mother, Frebec, please, stop fighting," Fralie interjected. "I just want to rest…"

She looked drawn and pale, and she worried Ayla. As the argument raged, the medicine woman in her could see how it distressed the pregnant woman. She got up and was drawn to the Hearth of the Crane.

"Can't you see Fralie upset?" Ayla said when both the old woman and the man stopped just long enough for her to speak. "She need help. You not help. You make sick. Not good, this fighting, for pregnant woman. Make lose baby."

Both Crozie and Frebec looked at her with surprise, but Crozie was quicker to recover.

"See, didn't I tell you? You don't care about Fralie. You don't even want her to talk to this woman who knows something about it. If she loses the baby, it will be your fault!"

"What does she know about it!" Frebec sneered. "Raised by a bunch of dirty animals, what can she know about medicine? Then she brings animals here. She's nothing but an animal herself. You're right, I'm not going to let Fralie near this abomination. Who knows what evil spirits she has brought into this lodge? If Fralie loses the baby it will be her fault! Her and her Mother-damned flatheads!"

Ayla staggered back as though she had been dealt a physical blow. The force of the vituperative attack took her breath away and rendered the rest of the Camp speechless. In the stunned silence, she gasped a strangled, sobbing cry, turned and ran out through the lodge. Jondalar grabbed her parka, and his, and ran after her.

Ayla pushed through the heavy drape of the outer archway into the teeth of screaming wind. The ominous storm that had been threatening all day brought no rain or snow, but howled with fierce intensity beyond the thick walls of the earthlodge. With no barrier to check their savage blast, the difference in atmospheric pressures caused by the great walls of glacial ice to the north created winds of hurricane force across the vast open steppes.

She whistled for Whinney, and heard an answering neigh close by. Coming out of the dark on the lee side of the longhouse, the mare and her colt appeared.

"Ayla! You weren't thinking of going for a ride in this windstorm, I hope," Jondalar said, coming out of the lodge. "Here, I brought your parka. It's cold out here. You must be freezing already."

"Oh, Jondalar. I can't stay here," she cried.

"Put your parka on, Ayla," he insisted, helping to pull it over her head. Then he took her in his arms. He had expected a scene such as the one Frebec had just made, much earlier. He knew it was bound to happen when she talked so openly about her background. "You can't leave now. Not in this. Where would you go?"

"I don't know. I don't care," she sobbed. "Away from here."

"What about Whinney? And Racer? This is no weather for them to be out in."

Ayla clung to Jondalar without answering, but on another level of consciousness, she had noticed that the horses had sought shelter close to the earthlodge. It bothered her that she had no cave to offer them for protection from bad weather, as they were used to. And Jondalar was right. She couldn't possibly leave on a night like this.

"I don't want to stay here, Jondalar. As soon as it clears up, I want to go back to the valley."

"If you want, Ayla. We'll go back. After it clears. But now, let's go back inside."

12

"Look how much ice is clinging to their coats," Ayla said, trying to brush away with her hand the icicles hanging in matted clumps to Whinney's long shaggy hair. The mare snorted, raising a steaming cloud of warm vapor in the cold morning air, which was quickly dissipated by the sharp wind. The storm had let up, but the clouds overhead still looked ominous.

"But horses are always outside in winter. They don't usually live in caves, Ayla," Jondalar said, trying to sound reasonable.

"And many horses die in winter, even though they stay in sheltered places when the weather is bad. Whinney and Racer have always had a warm and dry place when they wanted one. They don't live with a herd, they aren't used to being out all the time. This is not a good place for them… and it's not a good place for me. You said we could leave any time. I want to go back to the valley."

"Ayla, haven't we been made welcome here? Haven't most people been kind and generous?"

"Yes, we were welcomed. The Mamutoi try to be generous to their guests, but we are only visitors here, and it's time to leave."

Jondalar's forehead wrinkled with concern as he looked down and scuffed his foot. He wanted to say something, but didn't quite know how. "Ayla… ah… I told you something like this might happen if you… if you talked about the… ah… people you lived with. Most people don't think about… them the way you do." He looked up. "If you just hadn't said anything…"

"I would have died if it hadn't been for the Clan, Jondalar! Are you saying I should be ashamed of the people who took care of me? Do you think Iza was less human than Nezzie?" Ayla stormed.

"No, no, I didn't mean that, Ayla. I'm not saying you should be ashamed, I'm just saying… I mean… you don't have to talk about them to people who don't understand."

"I'm not sure you understand. Who do you think I should talk about when people ask who I am? Who my people are? Where I come from? I am not Clan any more – Broud cursed me, to them I am dead – but I wish I could be! At least they finally accepted me as a medicine woman. They wouldn't keep me from helping a woman who needs help. Do you know how terrible it is to see her suffer and not be allowed to help? I am a medicine woman, Jondalar!" she said with a cry of frustrated helplessness, and angrily turned back to the horse.

Latie stepped out of the entrance to the earthlodge, and seeing Ayla with the horses, approached eagerly. "What can I do to help?" she asked, smiling broadly.

Ayla recalled her request for help the evening before, and tried to compose herself. "Not think I need help now. Not stay, go back to valley soon," she said, speaking in the girl's language.

Latie was crushed. "Oh… well… I guess I'd be in the way, then," she said, starting back to the archway.

Ayla saw her disappointment. "But horses need coat brushed. Full of ice. Maybe could help today?"

"Oh, yes," the girl said, smiling again. "What can I do?"

"See, there, on ground near lodge, dry stalks?"

"You mean this teasel?" Latie asked, picking up a stiff stem with a rounded spiny dried top.

"Yes, I get from riverbank. Top make good brush. Break off, like this. Wrap hand with small piece leather. Make easier to hold," Ayla explained. Then she led her to Racer and showed the girl how to hold the teasel to curry the shaggy winter coat of the young horse. Jondalar stayed nearby to keep him calm until he became accustomed to the unfamiliar girl when Ayla went back to breaking up and brushing away the ice clinging to Whinney.

Latie's presence temporarily ended their talk about leaving, and Jondalar was grateful for it. He felt he had said more than he should have, and said it badly, and now was at a loss for words. He didn't want Ayla to go under these circumstances. She might never want to leave the valley again if she went back now. As much as he loved her, he didn't know if he could stand to spend the rest of his life with no other people. He didn't think she should, either. She has been getting along so well, he thought. She wouldn't have any trouble fitting in anywhere, even with the Zelandonii. If only she wouldn't talk about… but she's right. What is she supposed to say when someone asks who her people are? He knew that if he took her home with him, everyone would ask.

"Do you always brush the ice out of their coats, Ayla?" Latie asked.

"No, not always. At valley, horses come in cave when bad weather. Here, no place for horses," Ayla said. "I leave soon. Go back to valley, when weather clear."

Inside the lodge, Nezzie had walked through the cooking hearth and the entrance foyer on her way out, but as she approached the outer archway, she heard them talking outside, and stopped to listen. She had been afraid Ayla might want to leave after the trouble the night before, and that would mean no more sign language lessons for Rydag and the Camp. The woman had already noticed the difference in the way people treated him, now that they could talk to him. Except Frebec, of course. I'm sorry I asked Talut to invite them to join us… except where would Fralie be now if I hadn't? She's not well; this pregnancy is hard on her.

"Why do you have to leave, Ayla?" Latie asked. "We could make a shelter for them here."

"She's right. It wouldn't be hard to set up a tent, or lean-to, or something near the entrance to protect them from the worst winds and snows," Jondalar added.

"I think Frebec not like to have animal so close," Ayla said.

"Frebec is only one person, Ayla," Jondalar said.

"But Frebec is Mamutoi. I am not."

No one refuted her statement, but Latie blushed with shame for her Camp.

Inside, Nezzie hurried back to the Lion Hearth. Talut, just waking up, flung back the furs, swung his huge legs over the edge of the bed platform and sat up. He scratched his beard, stretched his arms in a wide reach and opened his mouth in a terrific yawn, and then made a grimace of pain and held his head in his hands for a moment. He looked up and saw Nezzie, and smiled sheepishly.

"I drank too much bouza last night," he announced. Getting up, he reached for his tunic and pulled it on.

"Talut, Ayla is planning to leave as soon as the weather clears," Nezzie said.

The big man scowled. "I was afraid she might. It's too bad. I was hoping they would winter with us."

"Can't we do anything? Why should Frebec's bad temper drive them away when everyone else wants them to stay?"

"I don't know what we can do. Have you talked to her, Nezzie?"

"No. I heard her talking outside. She told Latie there was no place here to shelter the horses, they were used to coming in her cave when the weather was bad. Latie said we could make a shelter, and Jondalar suggested a tent or something near the entrance. Then Ayla said she didn't think Frebec would like to have an animal so close, and I know she didn't mean the horses."

Talut headed for the entrance and Nezzie walked along. "We probably could make something for the horses," he said, "but if she wants to go, we can't force her to stay. She's not even Mamutoi, and Jondalar is Zel… Zella… whatever it is."

Nezzie stopped him. "Couldn't we make her a Mamutoi? She says she has no people. We could adopt her, then you and Tulie could make the ceremony to bring her into the Lion Camp."

Talut paused, considering. "I'm not sure, Nezzie. You don't make just anyone Mamutoi. Everyone would have to agree, and we'd need some good reasons to explain it to the Council at the Summer Meeting. Besides, you said she's leaving," Talut said, then pushed the drape aside and hurried to the gully.

Nezzie stood just outside the archway watching Talut's back, then shifted her gaze to the tall blond woman who was combing the thick coat of the hay-colored horse. Pausing to study her carefully, Nezzie wondered who she really was. If Ayla had lost her family on the peninsula to the south, they could have been Mamutoi. Several Camps summered near Beran Sea, and the peninsula wasn't much farther, but somehow the older woman doubted it. Mamutoi knew that was flathead territory and stayed away as a rule, and there was something about her that didn't quite look Mamutoi. Perhaps her family had been Sharamudoi, those river people to the west that Jondalar stayed with, or maybe Sungaea, the people who lived northeast, but she didn't know if they traveled as far south as the sea. Maybe her people had been strangers traveling from some other place. It was hard to say, but one thing was certain. Ayla was not a flathead… and yet they took her in.

Barzec and Tornec came out of the lodge, followed by Danug and Druwez. They motioned morning greetings to Nezzie in the way Ayla had shown them; it was becoming customary with the Lion Camp, and Nezzie encouraged it. Rydag came out next, motioned his greeting and smiled at her. She motioned and smiled back, but when she hugged him, her smile faded. Rydag didn't look well. He was puffy and pale and seemed more tired than usual. Perhaps he was getting sick.

"Jondalar! There you are," Barzec said. "I've made one of those throwers. We were going to try it out up on the steppes. I told Tornec a little exercise would help him get over his headache from drinking too much last night. Care to come along?"

Jondalar glanced at Ayla. It wasn't likely they were going to get anything resolved this morning, and Racer seemed to be quite content to have Latie giving him attention.

"All right. I'll get mine," Jondalar said.

While they waited, Ayla noticed that both Danug and Druwez seemed to be avoiding Latie's efforts to get their attention, though the gangly, red-haired young man smiled shyly at her. Latie watched after her brother and her cousin with unhappy eyes when they left with the men.

"They could have asked me to go along," she mumbled under her breath, then turned determinedly back to brushing Racer.

"You want learn spear-thrower, Latie?" Ayla asked, remembering early days when she watched after departing hunters wishing she could go along.

"They could have asked me. I always beat Druwez at Hoops and Darts, but they wouldn't even look at me," Latie said.

"I will show, if you want, Latie. After horses brushed," Ayla said.

Latie looked up at Ayla. She remembered the woman's surprising demonstrations with the spear-thrower and sling, and had noticed Danug smiling at her. Then a thought occurred to her. Ayla didn't try to call attention to herself, she just went ahead and did what she wanted to do, but she was so good at what she did, people had to pay attention to her.

"I would like you to show me, Ayla," she said. Then, after a pause, she asked, "How did you get so good? I mean with the spear-thrower and the sling?"

Ayla thought, then said, "I want to very much, and I practice… very much."

Talut came walking up from the direction of the river, his hair and beard wet, his eyes half closed.

"Oooh, my head," he said with an exaggerated moan.

"Talut, why did you get your head wet? In this weather, you'll get sick," Nezzie said.

"I am sick. I dunked my head in cold water to try to get rid of this headache. Oooh."

"No one forced you to drink so much. Go inside and dry off."

Ayla looked at him with concern, a little surprised that Nezzie seemed to feel so little sympathy for him. She'd had a headache and felt a little ill when she woke up, too. Was it caused by the drink? The bouza that everyone liked so well?

Whinney lifted her head and nickered, then bumped her. The ice on the horses' coats did not hurt them, though a big build-up could be heavy, but they enjoyed the brushing and the attention, and the mare had noticed that Ayla had paused, lost in thought.

"Whinney, stop that. You just want more attention, don't you?" she said, using the form of communication she usually did with the horse.

Though she'd heard it before, Latie was still a little startled by the perfect imitation of Whinney's nicker that Ayla made, and noticed the sign language now that she was more accustomed to it, though she wasn't sure she understood the gestures.

"You can talk to horses!" the girl said.

"Whinney is friend," Ayla said, saying the horse's name the way Jondalar did because the people of the Camp seemed more comfortable hearing a word rather than a whinny. "For long time, only friend." She patted the mare, then looked over the coat of the young horse and patted him. "I think enough brush. Now we get spear-thrower and go practice."

They went into the earthlodge, passing by Talut, who was looking miserable, on their way to the fourth hearth. Ayla picked up her spear-thrower and a handful of spears, and on her way out, noticed the leftover yarrow tea she had made for her morning headache. The dried flower umbel and brittle feathery leaves of the plant still clung to a stalk that had been growing near the teasel. Spicy and aromatic when fresh, the yarrow that had grown near the river was sapped of its potency by rain and sun, but it reminded her of some she had prepared and dried earlier. She had an upset stomach along with her headache, so she decided to use it as well as the willow bark.

Perhaps it would help Talut, she thought, though from the sound of his complaints she wondered if the preparation of ergot she made for particularly bad headaches might be better. That was very powerful medicine, though.

"Take this, Talut. For headache," she said on the way out. He smiled weakly, and took the cup and drank it down, not really expecting much, but glad for the sympathy which no one else seemed disposed to offer.

The blond woman and girl walked up the slope together, heading for the trampled track where the contests had been held. When they reached the level ground of the steppes, they saw that the four men who had gone up earlier were practicing at one end; they headed for the opposite end. Whinney and Racer trailed along behind. Latie smiled at the dark brown horse when he nickered at her and tossed his head. Then he settled down to graze beside his dam, while Ayla showed Latie how to cast a spear.

"Hold like this," Ayla began, holding the narrow wooden implement that was about two feet long in a horizontal position. She put the first and second fingers of her right hand into the leather loops.

"Then put spear on," she continued, resting the shaft of a spear, perhaps six feet long, in a groove cut down the length of the implement. She fitted the hook, carved as a backstop, into the butt end of the spear, being careful not to crush the feathers. Then, holding the spear steady, she pulled back and hurled it. The long free end of the spear-thrower rose up, adding length and leverage, and the spear flew with speed and force. She gave the implement to Latie.

"Like this?" the girl said, holding the spear-thrower the way Ayla had explained. "The spear rests in this groove, and I put my fingers through the loops to hold it, and put the end against this back part."

"Good. Now throw."

Latie lobbed the spear a good distance. "It's not so hard," she said, pleased with herself.

"No. Is not hard to throw spear," Ayla agreed. "Is hard to make spear go where you want."

"You mean to be accurate. Like making the dart go in the hoop."

Ayla smiled. "Yes. Need practice, to make dart go in hoop… go in the hoop." She had noticed Frebec coming up to see what the men were doing, and it suddenly made her conscious of her speech. She still wasn't speaking right. She needed to practice, too, she thought. But why should it matter? She wasn't staying.

Latie practiced while Ayla coached, and they both became so involved they didn't notice that the men had drifted in their direction and had stopped their practice to watch.

"That's good, Latie!" Jondalar called out after she had hit her mark. "You may turn out to be better than anyone! I think these boys got tired of practicing and wanted to come and watch you instead."

Danug and Druwez looked uncomfortable. There was some truth in Jondalar's teasing, but Latie's smile was radiant. "I will be better than anyone. I'm going to practice until I am," she said.

They decided they'd had enough practicing for one day, and tromped back down to the earthlodge. As they approached the tusk archway, Talut came bursting out.

"Ayla! There you are. What was in that drink you gave me?" he asked, advancing on her.

She took a step back. "Yarrow, with some alfalfa, and a little raspberry leaf, and…"

"Nezzie! Do you hear that? Find out how she makes it. It made my headache go away! I feel like a new man!" He looked around. "Nezzie?"

"She went down to the river with Rydag," Tulie said. "He seemed tired this morning, and Nezzie didn't think he should go so far. But he said he wanted to go with her… or maybe, he wanted to be with her… I'm not sure of the sign. I said I'd go down and help her carry him, or the water, back. I'm just on my way."

Tulie's remarks caught Ayla's attention for more than one reason. She felt some concern about the child, but more than that, she detected a distinct change in Tulie's attitude toward him. He was Rydag now, not just "the boy," and she spoke about what he had said. He had become a person to her.

"Well…" Talut hesitated, surprised for a moment that Nezzie wasn't in his immediate vicinity, then, reproaching himself for expecting her to be, he chuckled. "Will you tell me how to make it, Ayla?"

"Yes," she said. "I will."

He looked delighted. "If I'm going to make the bouza, then I ought to know a remedy for the morning after."

Ayla smiled. For all his size, there was something so endearing about the huge red-haired headman. She had no doubt he could be formidable if brought to anger. He was as agile and quick as he was strong, and he certainly did not lack for intelligence, but there was a gentle quality to him. He resisted anger. Though he was not averse to making a joke at someone else's expense, he laughed as often at his own foibles. He dealt with the human problems of the people with genuine concern and his compassion extended beyond his own camp.

Suddenly a high-pitched keening pulled everyone's attention toward the river. Her first glance sent Ayla running down the slope; several people followed behind. Nezzie was kneeling over a small figure, wailing in anguish. Tulie was standing beside her looking distraught and helpless. When Ayla arrived, she saw that Rydag was unconscious.

"Nezzie?" Ayla said, asking with her expression what had happened.

"We were walking up the slope," Nezzie explained. "He started having trouble breathing. I decided I'd better carry him, but as I was putting down the waterbag, I heard him cry out in pain. When I looked up, he was lying there like that."

Ayla bent down and examined Rydag carefully, putting her hand, and then her ear, to his chest, feeling his neck near the jaw. She looked at Nezzie with troubled eyes, then turned to the headwoman.

"Tulie, carry Rydag to lodge, to Mammoth Hearth. Hurry!" she commanded.

Ayla ran back up ahead and dashed through the archways. She rushed to the platform at the foot of her bed, and pawed through her belongings until she found an unusual pouch that had been made from a whole otter skin. She dumped its contents on the bed and searched through the pile of packets and small pouches it had contained, looking at the shape of the container, the color and type of cord that held it closed, and the number and spacing of knots in it.

Her mind raced. It's his heart, I know the trouble is his heart. It didn't sound right. What should I do? I don't know as much about the heart. No one in Brun's clan had heart problems. I must remember what Iza explained to me. And that other medicine woman at the Clan Gathering, she had two people in her clan with heart problems. First think, Iza always said, what exactly is wrong. He's pale and swollen up. He's having trouble breathing, and he's in pain. His pulse is weak. His heart must work harder, make stronger pushes. What is best to use? Datura, maybe? I don't think so. What about hellebore? Belladonna? Henbane? Foxglove? Foxglove, leaves of foxglove. It's so strong. It could kill him. But he will die without something strong enough to make his heart work again. Then, how much to use? Should I boil it or steep it? Oh, I wish I could remember the way Iza did. Where is my foxglove? Don't I have any?

"Ayla, what's wrong?" She looked up to see Mamut beside her.

"It's Rydag… his heart. They bring him. I look for… plant. Tall stem… flowers hang down… purple, red spots inside. Big leaves, feel like fur, underside. Make heart… push. You know?" Ayla felt stifled by her lack of vocabulary, but she had been more clear than she realized.

"Of course, purpurea, foxglove is another name. That's very strong… Mamut watched Ayla close her eyes and take a deep breath."

"Yes, but necessary. Must think, how much… Here is bag! Iza say, always keep with."

Just then Tulie came in carrying the small boy. Ayla grabbed a fur off her bed, put it on the ground near the fire, and directed the woman to lay him down on it. Nezzie was right behind her, and everyone else crowded around.

"Nezzie, take off the parka. Open clothes. Talut, too much people here. Make room," Ayla directed, not even realizing she was issuing commands. She opened the small leather pouch she held and sniffed the contents, and looked up at the old shaman, concerned. Then with a glance at the unconscious child, her face hardened with determination. "Mamut, need hot fire. Latie, get cooking stones, bowl of water, cup to drink."

While Nezzie loosened his clothing, Ayla bunched up more furs to put behind him and raise his head. Talut was making the people of the Camp stand back to give Rydag air, and Ayla working room. Latie was anxiously feeding the fire Mamut had made, trying to make the stones heat faster.

Ayla checked Rydag's pulse; it was hard to find. She laid her ear to his chest. His breathing was shallow and raspy. He needed help. She moved back his head, to open his air passage, then clamped her mouth over his to breathe her air into his lungs, as she had done with Nuvie.

Mamut observed her for a while. She seemed too young to have much healing skill, and certainly there had been an indecisive moment, but that had passed. Now she was calm, focusing on the child, issuing orders with quiet assurance.

He nodded to himself, then sat behind the mammoth skull drum and began a measured cadence accompanied by a low chant, which, strangely, had the effect of easing some of the strain Ayla was feeling. The healing chant was quickly picked up by the rest of the Camp; it relieved their tensions to feel they were contributing in a beneficial way. Tornec and Deegie joined in with their instruments, then Ranec appeared with rings made out of ivory, that rattled. The music of drums and chanting and rattle was not loud or overpowering, but instead gently pulsing and soothing.

Finally the water boiled and Ayla measured out a quantity of dried foxglove leaves into her palm and sprinkled it on the water simmering in the bowl. She waited then, letting them steep and trying to stay calm, until finally the color and her intuitive sense told her it was right. She poured some of the liquid from the cooking bowl into a cup. Then she cradled Rydag's head in her lap, and closed her eyes for a moment. This was not medicine to be used lightly. The wrong dosage would kill him, and the strength in the leaves of each plant was variable.

She opened her eyes to see two vivid blue eyes, full of love and concern, looking back at her, and gave Jondalar a fleeting smile of gratitude. She brought the cup to her mouth and dipped her tongue into it, testing the strength of the preparation. Then she put the bitter brew to the child's lips.

He choked on the first sip, but that roused him slightly. He tried to smile his recognition of Ayla, but made a grimace of pain instead. She made him drink more, slowly, while she carefully watched his reactions: changes in skin temperature and color, the movement of his eyes, the depth of his breathing. The people of the Lion Camp watched, too, anxiously. They hadn't realized how much the child had come to mean to them until his life was threatened. He had grown up with them, he was one of them, and recently they had begun to realize he was not so different from them.

Ayla wasn't sure when the rhythms and chanting stopped, but the quiet sound of Rydag taking a deep breath sounded like a roar of victory in the absolute silence of the tension-filled lodge.

Ayla noticed a slight flush as he took a second deep breath, and felt her apprehensions ease a bit. The rhythms started again with a changed tempo, a child cried, voices murmured. She put down the cup, checked the pulse in his neck, felt his chest. He was breathing easier, and with less pain. She looked up and saw Nezzie smiling at her through eyes filled with tears. She was not alone.

Ayla held the boy until she was sure he was resting comfortably, and then held him just because she wanted to. If she half closed her eyes, she could almost forget the people of the Camp. She could almost imagine this boy, who looked so much like her son, was indeed the child to whom she had given birth. The tears that wet her cheeks were as much for herself, for the son she longed to see, as they were for the child in her arms.

Rydag fell asleep, finally. The ordeal had taken much out of him, and Ayla as well. Talut picked him up and carried him to his bed, then Jondalar helped her up. He stood with his arms around her, while she leaned against him, feeling drained and grateful for his support.

There were tears of relief in the eyes of most of the assembled Camp, but appropriate words were hard to find. They didn't know what to say to the young woman who had saved the child. They gave her smiles, nods of approval warm touches, a few murmured comments, hardly more than sounds. More than enough for Ayla. At that moment, she would have been uncomfortable with too many words of gratitude or praise.

After Nezzie made sure Rydag was comfortably settled, she went to talk to Ayla. "I thought he was gone. I can't believe he's only sleeping," she said. "That medicine was good."

Ayla nodded. "Yes, but strong. But he should take every day, some, not too much. Should take with other medicine. I will mix for him. You make like tea, but boil little first. I will show. Give him small cup in morning, another before sleep. He will pass water at night more, until swelling down."

"Will that medicine make him well, Ayla?" Nezzie asked, hope in her voice.

Ayla reached to touch her hand, and looked directly at her. "No, Nezzie. No medicine can make him well," she replied in a firm voice that was tinged with sorrow.

Nezzie bowed her head in acquiescence. She'd known all along, but Ayla's medicine had effected such a miraculous recovery, she couldn't help but hope.

"Medicine will help. Make Rydag feel better. Not pain so much," Ayla continued. "But I not have much. Leave most medicine in valley. I not think we go for long. Mamut knows foxglove, may have some."

Mamut spoke up. "My gift is for Searching, Ayla. I have little gift for Healing, but the Mamut of the Wolf Camp is a good Healer. We can send someone to ask if she has some, after the weather clears. It will take a few days, though."

Ayla hoped she had enough of the heart stimulant made from the digitalis fox glove leaves to last until someone could go to get some, but wished even more that she had the rest of her own preparation with her. She wasn't sure of someone else's methods. She was always very careful to dry the large, fuzzy leaves slowly, in a cool, dark place out of the sun, to retain as much of the active principle as possible. In fact, she wished she had all her carefully prepared herbal medicines, but they were still stored in her small cave in the valley.

Just as Iza had done, Ayla always carried her otter skin medicine bag which contained certain roots and barks, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. But that was little more than first aid to her. She had an entire pharmacopoeia in her cave, even though she'd lived alone and had no real use for it there. It was training and habit that caused her to collect medicinal plants as they appeared with the passing seasons. It was almost as automatic as walking. She knew of many other uses for the plant life in her environment, from fibers for cordage to food, but it was the medicinal properties that interested her most. She could hardly pass a plant she knew to have healing properties without gathering it, and she knew hundreds.

She was so familiar with the vegetation that unknown plants always intrigued her. She looked for similarities to known plants, and understood categories within larger categories. She could identify related types and families, but knew well that similar appearance did not necessarily mean similar reactions, and cautiously experimented on herself, tasting and testing with knowledge and experience.

She was also careful with dosages and methods of preparation. Ayla knew that an infusion, prepared by pouring boiling water over various leaves, flowers, or berries and letting it steep, extracted aromatic and volatile principles and essences. Boiling, which produced a decoction, withdrew the extractive, resinous, and bitter principles and was more effective on hard materials like barks, roots, and seeds. She knew how to withdraw the essential oils, gums, and resins of a herb, how to make poultices, plasters, tonics, syrups, ointments, or salves using fats or thickening agents. She knew how to mix ingredients, and how to strengthen or dilute as needed.

The same process of comparison that was applied to plants revealed the similarities between animals. Ayla's knowledge of the human body and its functions was the result of a long history of drawing conclusions from trial and error, and an extensive understanding of animal anatomy derived from butchering the animals that were hunted. Their relationship to humans could be seen when accidents or injuries were sustained.

Ayla was a botanist, pharmacist, and doctor; her magic consisted of the esoteric lore passed down and improved upon by generation after generation for hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of years of gatherers and hunters whose very existence depended on an intimate knowledge of the land on which they lived and its products.

Out of that timeless resource of unrecorded history, passed on to her through the training she had received from Iza, and aided by an inherent analytical talent and intuitive perception, Ayla could diagnose and treat most ailments and injuries. With a razor-sharp flint blade she even did minor surgical operations occasionally, but Ayla's medicine depended more on the complex active principles of healing plants. She was skilled, and her remedies were effective, but she could not perform major surgery to correct a congenital defect of the heart.

As Ayla watched the sleeping boy who looked so much like her son, she felt a deep relief and gratitude knowing that Durc had been sound and healthy when he was born – but that did not assuage the pain of having to tell Nezzie that no medicine could make Rydag well.

Later in the afternoon, Ayla sorted through her packets and pouches of herbs to prepare the mixture she had promised Nezzie she would make. Mamut silently watched her again. There could be little doubt now of her healing skills by anyone, including Frebec, though he still might not want to admit it, or Tulie, who had not been as vocal, but who, the old man knew, had been very skeptical. Ayla appeared to be an ordinary young woman, quite attractive even to his old eyes, but he was convinced there was much more to her than anyone knew; he doubted if she even knew the full extent of her potential.

What a difficult – and fascinating – life she has led, he mused. She looks so young, but she is already much older in experience than most people will ever be. How long did she live with them? How had she become so skilled in their medicine? he wondered. He knew that such knowledge was not usually taught to one not born to it, and she had been an outsider, more than most people could ever understand. Then there was her unexpected talent for Searching. What other talents might lie untapped? What knowledge not yet used? What secrets unrevealed?

Her strength comes out in a crisis; he remembered how Ayla had given orders to Tulie, and Talut. Even me, he thought with a smile, and no one objected. Leadership comes to her naturally. What adversity has tested her to give her such presence so young? The Mother has plans for her, I'm sure of it, but what about the young man, Jondalar? He is certainly well favored, but his gifts are not extraordinary. What is Her purpose for him?

She was putting the balance of her packages of herbs away when Mamut suddenly looked more closely at her otter skin medicine bag. It was familiar. He could close his eyes and almost see one so similar that it brought back a flood of memories.

"Ayla, may I see that?" he asked, wanting to see it more closely.

"This? My medicine bag?" she queried.

"I've always wondered how they were made."

Ayla handed him the unusual pouch, noticing the arthritic bumps in his long, thin, old hands.

The ancient shaman examined it carefully. It showed signs of wear; she'd had it for some time. It had been made, not by sewing or attaching pieces together, but from the skin of a single animal. Rather than slitting the otter's belly, which was the usual way to skin an animal, only the throat had been cut, leaving the head attached by a strip at the back. The bones and insides were drawn out through the neck and the brain case was drained, leaving it somewhat flattened. The entire skin was then cured and small holes had been cut at intervals around the neck with a stone awl for a cord to be threaded through as a drawstring. The result was a pouch of sleek, waterproof otter fur with the feet and tail still intact, and the head used as a cover flap.

Mamut gave it back to her. "Did you make that?"

"No. Iza make. She was medicine woman of Brun's clan, my… mother. She teach me since little girl, where plants grow, how to make medicine, how to use. She was sick, not go to Clan Gathering. Brun need medicine woman. Uba too young, I am only one."

Mamut nodded with understanding, then he looked at her sharply. "What was the name you said just now?"

"My mother? Iza?"

"No, the other one."

Ayla thought for a moment. "Uba?"

"Who is Uba?"

"Uba is… sister. Not true sister, but like sister to me. She is daughter of Iza. Now she is medicine woman… and mother of…"

"Is that a common name?" Mamut interrupted in a voice that carried an edge of excitement.

"No… I do not think… Creb name Uba. Mother of Iza's mother had same name. Creb and Iza had same mother."

"Creb! Tell me, Ayla, this Creb, did he have a bad arm and walk with a limp?"

"Yes," Ayla replied, puzzled. How could Mamut know?

"And was there another brother? Younger, but strong and healthy?"

Ayla frowned in the face of Mamut's eager questions. "Yes. Brun. He was leader."

"Great Mother! I can't believe it! Now I understand."

"I do not understand," Ayla said.

"Ayla, come, sit down. I want to tell you a story."

He led her to a place by the hearth near his bed. He perched on the edge of the platform, while she sat on a mat on the floor and looked up expectantly.

"Once, many, many years ago, when I was a very young man, I had a strange adventure that changed my life," Mamut began. Ayla felt a sudden, eerie tingling just under her skin and had a feeling that she almost knew what he was going to say.

"Manuv and I are from the same Camp. The man his mother chose for a mate was my cousin. We grew up together, and as youngsters do, we talked about making a Journey together, but the summer we were going to go, he got sick. Very sick. I was anxious to start, we'd been planning the trip for years and I kept hoping he'd get better, but the sickness lingered. Finally, near the end of the summer I decided to Journey alone. Everyone advised against it, but I was restless.

"We had planned to skirt Beran Sea and then follow the eastern shore of the big Southern Sea, much the way Wymez did. But it was so late in the season I decided to take a short cut across the peninsula and the eastern connection to the mountains."

Ayla nodded. Brun's clan had used that route to the Clan Gathering.

"I didn't tell anyone my plan. It was flathead country, and I knew I'd get a lot of objections. I thought if I was careful I could avoid any contact, but I didn't count on the accident. I'm still not sure how it happened. I was walking along a high bank of a river, almost a cliff, and the next thing I knew I slipped and fell down it. I must have been unconscious for a while. It was late afternoon when I came to. My head hurt and was none too clear, but worse was my arm. The bone was dislocated and broken, and I was in great pain.

"I stumbled along the river for a while, not sure where I was going. I'd lost my pack and didn't even think to look for it. I don't know how long I walked, but it was almost dark when I finally noticed a fire. I didn't consider that I was on the peninsula. When I saw some people near it, I headed for it.

"I can imagine their surprise when I stumbled into their midst, but by then I was so delirious I didn't know where I was. My surprise came later. I woke up in unfamiliar surroundings, with no idea how I had gotten there. When I discovered a poultice on my head and my arm in a sling, I remembered falling, and thought how lucky I was to have been found by a Camp with a good Healer, then the woman appeared. Perhaps you can imagine, Ayla, how shocked I was to discover I was in the Camp of a clan."

Ayla was feeling shocked herself. "You! You are man with broken arm? You know Creb and Brun?" Ayla said in stunned disbelief. A rash of feeling overwhelmed her and tears squeezed out of the corners of her eyes. It was like a message from her past.

"You have heard of me?"

"Iza told me, before she is born, her mother's mother heal man with broken arm. Man of the Others. Creb tell me, too. He said Brun let me stay with clan because he learn from that man – from you, Mamut – Others are men, too." Ayla stopped, stared at the white hair, the wrinkled old face, of the venerable old man. "Iza walk in spirit world now. She was not born when you come… and Creb… he was boy, not yet chosen by Ursus. Creb was old man when he die… how can you still live?"

"I have wondered myself why the Mother chose to grant me so many seasons. I think She has just given me an answer."

13

"Talut? Talut, are you asleep?" Nezzie whispered in the big headman's ear as she shook him.

"Huh? Wha's wrong?" he said, coming abruptly awake.

"Shhh. Don't wake everybody. Talut, we can't let Ayla go now. Who will take care of Rydag the next time? I think we should adopt her, make her part of our family, make her Mamutoi."

He looked up and saw her eyes glistening a reflection of the red coals of the banked fire. "I know you care for the boy, Nezzie. I do, too. But is your love for him a reason to make a stranger one of us? What would I say to the Councils?"

"It's not just Rydag. She is a Healer. A good Healer. Do the Mamutoi have so many Healers that we can afford to let such a good one go? Look what has happened in just a few days. She saved Nuvie from choking to death… I know Tulie said that could just have been a technique she learned, but your sister can't say that about Rydag. Ayla knew what she was doing. That was Healing medicine. She's right about Fralie, too. Even I can see this pregnancy is hard on her, and all that fighting and arguing isn't helping. And what about your headache?"

Talut grinned. "That was more than Healing magic; that was amazing!"

"Shhhh! You'll wake the whole lodge up. Ayla is more than a Healer. Mamut says she's an untrained Searcher, too. And look at her way with animals, I wouldn't doubt if she isn't a Caller besides. Think what a benefit that would be to a Camp if it turns out that she can not only Search out animals to hunt, but Call them to her?"

"You don't know that, Nezzie. You're just guessing."

"Well, I don't have to guess about her skill with those weapons. You know she'd bring a good Bride Price if she were Mamutoi, Talut. With everything she has to offer, tell me what you think she'd be worth as the daughter of your hearth?"

"Hmmm. If she were Mamutoi, and the daughter of the Lion Hearth… But she may not want to become Mamutoi, Nezzie. What about the young man, Jondalar? It's obvious that there is strong feeling between them."

Nezzie had been thinking about it for some time and she was ready. "Ask him too."

"Both of them!" Talut exploded, sitting up.

"Hush! Keep your voice down!"

"But he has people. He says he's Zel… Zel… whatever it is."

"Zelandonii," Nezzie whispered. "But his people live a long way from here. Why should he want to make such a long trip back if he can find a home with us? You could ask him, anyway, Talut. That weapon he invented ought to be reason enough to satisfy the Councils. And Wymez says he is an expert toolmaker. If my brother gives him a recommendation, you know the Councils won't refuse."

"That's true… but, Nezzie," Talut said, lying down again, "how do you know they will want to stay?"

"I don't know, but you can ask, can't you?"

It was midmorning when Talut stepped out of the long-house, and noticed Ayla and Jondalar leading the horses away from the Camp. There was no snow, but early morning hoarfrost still lingered in patches of crystal white, and their heads were wreathed in steam with each breath. Static crinkled in the dry freezing air. The woman and man were dressed for the cold in fur parkas with hoods pulled tight around their faces, and fur leggings which were tucked into footwear that was wrapped around the lower edge of the trousers and tied.

"Jondalar! Ayla! Are you leaving?" he called, hurrying to catch up with them.

Ayla nodded an affirmative reply, which made Talut lose his smile, but Jondalar explained, "We're just going to give the horses some exercise. We'll be back after noon."

He neglected to mention that they were also looking for some privacy, a place to be alone for a while to discuss, without interruption, whether to go back to Ayla's valley. Or rather, in Jondalar's mind, to talk Ayla out of wanting to go.

"Good. I'd like to arrange for some practice sessions with those spear-throwers, when the weather clears. I'd like to see how they work and what I could do with one," Talut said.

"I think you might be surprised," Jondalar replied, smiling, "at how well they work."

"Not by themselves. I'm sure they work well for either of you, but it takes some skill, and there may not be much time for practice before spring." Talut paused, considering.

Ayla waited, her hand on the mare's withers, just below her short, stiff mane. A heavy fur mitten dangled by a cord out of the sleeve of her parka. The cord was drawn up through the sleeve, through a loop at the back of the neck, down the other sleeve, and attached to the other mitten. With the cord attached to them, if the dexterity of a bare hand was needed, the mittens could be pulled off quickly, without fear of losing them. In a land of such deep cold and strong winds, a lost mitten could mean a lost hand, or a lost life. The young horse was snorting and prancing with excitement, and bumped against Jondalar impatiently. They seemed anxious to be on their way, and were waiting for him to finish only out of courtesy, Talut knew. He decided to plunge ahead anyway.

"Nezzie was talking to me last night, and this morning I spoke to some others. It would be helpful to have someone around to show us how to use those hunting weapons."

"Your hospitality has been more than generous. You know I would be happy to show anyone how to use the spear-thrower. It is small enough thanks for all you have done," Jondalar said.

Talut nodded, then went on, "Wymez tells me you are a fine flint knapper, Jondalar. The Mamutoi can always use someone who can produce good-quality tools. And Ayla has many skills that would benefit any Camp. She is not only proficient with the spear-thrower and that sling of hers – you were right" – he turned from Jondalar to Ayla – "she is a Healer. We would like you to stay."

"I was hoping we might winter with you, Talut, and I appreciate your offer, but I'm not sure how Ayla feels about it," Jondalar replied, smiling, feeling that Talut's offer couldn't have come at a better time. How could she leave now? Certainly Talut's offer meant more than Frebec's nastiness.

Talut continued, addressing his remarks to the young woman. "Ayla, you have no people now, and Jondalar lives far away, perhaps farther than he cares to travel if he can find a home here. We would like you both to stay, not only through the winter, but always. I invite you to become one of us, and I speak for more than myself. Tulie and Barzec would be willing to adopt Jondalar to the Aurochs Hearth, and Nezzie and I want you to become a daughter of the Lion Hearth. Since Tulie is headwoman, and I am headman, that would give you a high standing among the Mamutoi."

"You mean, you want to adopt us? You want us to become Mamutoi?" Jondalar blurted, a little stunned, and flushed with surprise.

"You want me? You want adopt me?" Ayla asked. She had been listening to the conversation, frowning with concentration, not entirely sure she believed what she was hearing. "You want make Ayla of No People, Ayla of the Mamutoi?"

The big man smiled. "Yes."

Jondalar was at a loss for words. Hospitality to guests might be a matter of custom, and of pride, but no people made a custom of asking strangers to join their tribe, their family, without serious consideration.

"I… uh… don't know… what to say," he said. "I am very honored. It is a great compliment to be asked."

"I know you need some time to think about it. Both of you," Talut said. "I would be surprised if you didn't. We haven't mentioned it to everyone, and the whole Camp must agree, but that shouldn't be a problem with all you bring, and Tulie and I both speaking for you. I wanted to ask you first. If you agree, I will call a meeting."

They silently watched the big headman walk back to the earthlodge. They had planned to find a place to talk, each hoping to resolve problems that they felt had begun to arise between them. Talut's unexpected invitation had added an entirely new dimension to their thoughts, to the decisions they needed to make, indeed, to their lives. Without saying a word, Ayla mounted Whinney and Jondalar got on behind her. With Racer following along, they started out up the slope and across the open countryside, each lost in thought.

Ayla was moved beyond words by Talut's offer. When she lived with the Clan, she had often felt alienated, but it was nothing to the aching emptiness, the desperate loneliness she had known without them. From the time she left the Clan until Jondalar came, hardly more than a season before, she had been alone. She'd had no one, no sense of belonging, no home, no family, no people, and she knew she would never see her clan again. Because of the earthquake that left her orphaned, before she was found by the Clan, the earthquake on the day she was expelled gave her separation a profound sense of finality.

Underlying her feeling was a deep elemental fear, a combination of the primordial terror of heaving earth and the convulsive grief of a small girl who had lost everything, even her memory of those to whom she had belonged. There was nothing Ayla feared more than wrenching earth movements. They always seemed to signal changes in her life as abrupt and violent as the changes they wrought on the land. It was almost as though the earth itself was telling her what to expect… or shuddering in sympathy.

But after the first time she lost everything, the Clan had become her people. Now, if she chose, she could have people again. She could become Mamutoi; she would not be alone.

But what about Jondalar? How could she choose a people different from his? Would he want to stay and become Mamutoi? Ayla doubted it. She was sure he wanted to return to his own home. But he had been afraid all of the Others would behave toward her as Frebec did. He didn't want her to speak of the Clan. What if she went with him and they would not accept her? Maybe his people were all like Frebec. She would not refrain from mentioning them, as though Iza, and Creb, and Brun, and her son, were people she should be ashamed of. She would not be ashamed of the people she loved!

Did she want to go to his home and risk being treated like an animal? Or did she want to stay here where she was wanted, and accepted? The Lion Camp had even taken in a mixed child, a boy like her son… Suddenly a thought struck her. If they had taken in one, might they take another? One who was not weak or sickly? One who could learn to talk? Mamutoi territory extended all the way to Beran Sea. Didn't Talut say someone had a Willow Camp there? The peninsula where the Clan lived was not far beyond. If she became one of the Mamutoi, maybe, someday, she could… But what about Jondalar? What if he left? Ayla felt a deep ache in the pit of her stomach at the thought. Could she bear to live without Jondalar? she wondered, as she wrestled with mixed feelings.

Jondalar struggled with conflicting desires, too. He hardly considered the offer made to him, except that he wanted to find a reason to refuse that would not offend Talut and the Mamutoi. He was Jondalar of the Zelandonii, and he knew his brother had been right. He could never be anything else. He wanted to go home, but it was a nagging ache rather than a great urgency. It was impossible to think in any other terms. His home was so far away, it would take a year just to travel the distance.

His mental turmoil was about Ayla. Though he'd never lacked for willing partners, most of whom would have been more than willing to form a more lasting tie, he'd never found a woman the way he wanted Ayla. None of the women among his own people, and none of the women he met on his travels, had been able to cause in him that state he had seen in others, but had not felt himself, until he met her. He loved her more than he thought was possible. She was everything he'd ever wanted in a woman, and more. He could not bear the thought of living without her.

But he also knew what it was like to bring disgrace upon himself. And the very qualities that attracted him – her combination of innocence and wisdom, of honesty and mystery, of self-confidence and vulnerability – were the result of the same circumstances that could cause him to feel the pain of disgrace and exile again.

Ayla had been raised by the Clan, people who were different in unexplainable ways. To most people he knew, the ones Ayla referred to as Clan were not human. They were animals, but not like the other animals created by the Mother for their needs. Though not admitted, the similarities between them were recognized, but the Clan's obvious human characteristics did not cause close feelings of brotherhood. Rather, they were seen as a threat and their differences were emphasized. To people like Jondalar, the Clan was viewed as an unspeakably bestial species not even included in the Great Earth Mother's pantheon of creations, as though they had been spawned of some great unfathomable evil.

But there was more recognition of their mutual humanity in deed than in word. Jondalar's kind had moved into the Clan's territory not so many generations before, often taking over good living sites near bountiful foraging and hunting areas, and forcing the Clan into other regions. But just as wolf packs divide up a territory among themselves, and defend it from each other, not other creatures, prey or predatory, the acceptance of the boundaries of each other's territories was a tacit agreement that they were the same species.

Jondalar had come to realize, about the time he realized his feeling for Ayla, that all life was a creation of the Great Earth Mother, including flatheads. But, although he loved her, he was convinced that among his people Ayla would be an outcast. It was more than her association with the Clan that made her a pariah. She would be viewed as an unspeakable abomination, who was condemned by the Mother, because she had given birth to a child of mixed spirits, half-animal and half-human.

The taboo was common. All the people Jondalar had met on his travels held the belief, though some more strongly than others. Some people did not even admit to the existence of such misbegotten offspring, others thought of the situation as an unpleasant joke. That was why he had been so shocked to find Rydag at the Lion Camp. He was sure it could not have been easy for Nezzie, and in truth, she had borne the brunt of harsh criticism and prejudice. Only someone serenely confident and sure of her position would have dared to face down her detractors, and her genuine compassion and humanity had eventually prevailed. But even Nezzie had not mentioned the son Ayla had told her about, when she was trying to persuade the others to take her in.

Ayla didn't know the pain Jondalar felt when Frebec had ridiculed her, though he had expected more of it. His pain was more than just empathy for her, however. The whole angry confrontation reminded him of another time that his emotions had led him astray, and it exposed a deep and buried pain of his own. But, even worse, was his own unexpected reaction. That caused his anguish now. Jondalar still flushed with guilt because, for a moment, he had been mortified to be associated with her when Frebec hurled his invective. How could he love a woman and be ashamed of her?

Ever since that terrible time when he was young, Jondalar had fought to keep himself under control, but he seemed unable to contain the conflicts that tormented him now. He wanted to take Ayla home with him. He wanted her to meet Dalanar and the people of his Cave, and his mother, Marthona, and his older brother and young sister, and his cousins, and Zelandoni. He wanted them to welcome her, to establish his own hearth with her, a place where she could have children that might be of his spirit. There was no one else on earth he wanted, yet he cringed at the thought of the contempt that might be heaped on him for bringing home such a woman, and he was reluctant to expose her to it.

Especially if it didn't have to be. If only she wouldn't speak about the Clan, no one would know. Yet, what could she say when someone asked who her people were? Where she came from? The people who raised her were the only ones she knew, unless… she accepted Talut's offer. Then, she could be Ayla of the Mamutoi, just as though she were born to them. Her peculiar way of saying some words would just be an accent. Who knows? he thought. Maybe she is Mamutoi. Her parents could have been. She doesn't know who they were.

But if she becomes Mamutoi, she might decide to stay. What if she does? Would I be able to stay? Could I learn to accept these people as my own? Thonolan did it. Did he love Jetamio more than I love Ayla? But the Sharamudoi were her people. She was born and raised there. The Mamutoi are not Ayla's people any more than they are mine. If she could be happy here, she could be happy with the Zelandonii. But if she becomes one of them, she might not want to come home with me. She wouldn't have any trouble finding someone here… I'm sure Ranec wouldn't mind at all.

Ayla felt him clutch her possessively, and wondered what had brought it on. She noticed a line of brush ahead, thought it was probably a small river, and urged Whinney toward it. The horses smelled the water and needed little prodding. When they reached the stream, Ayla and Jondalar dismounted and looked for a comfortable place to sit.

The watercourse had a thickening at the edges which they knew was only the beginning. The white border that had been built up, layer upon layer, out of the dark waters still swirling down the center, would grow as the season waxed, and close in until the turbulent flow was stilled, held in suspension until the cycle turned. Then the waters would burst forth once again in a gush of freedom.

Ayla opened a small parfleche, a carrying case made of stiff rawhide, in which she had packed food for them, some dried meat that she thought was aurochs, and a small basket of dried blueberries and little tart plums. She brought out a brassy gray nodule of iron pyrite and a piece of flint to start a small fire to boil water for tea. Jondalar marveled again at the ease with which the fire was started with the firestone. It was magic, a miracle. He had never seen anything like it before he met Ayla.

Nodules of iron pyrite – firestones – had littered the rocky beach in her valley. Her discovery that a hot spark, long-lived enough to start a fire, could be drawn from the iron pyrite by striking it with flint, had been an accident, but one she was ready to take advantage of. Her fire had gone out. She knew how to make fire by the laborious process most people used, twirling a stick against a base, or platform, of wood until the friction caused heat enough to make a smoldering ember. So she understood how to apply the principle when she picked up a chunk of iron pyrite, by mistake, instead of her flint-shaping hammerstone, and struck that first spark.

Jondalar had learned the technique from Ayla. Working with flint, he had often caused small sparks, but he thought of it as the living spirit of the stone released as part of the process. It didn't occur to him to attempt to make a fire with the sparks. But then he was not alone in a valley living on the bare edge of survival; he was usually around people who nearly always had a fire going. The sparks he made with just flint were not usually long-lived enough to make fire, anyway. It was Ayla's adventitious combination of flint and iron pyrite that created the spark which could be made into fire. He understood immediately the value of the process and the firestones, however, and the benefits to be gained by being able to make fire so quickly and easily.

While they ate, they laughed at the antics of Racer enticing his mother into a game of "come get me," and then at both horses rolling on their backs, their legs kicking up in the air, on a sandy bank protected from the wind and warmed by the sun. They carefully avoided any mention of the thoughts that were on their minds, but the laughter relaxed them both, and the seclusion and privacy reminded them of their days of closeness in the valley. By the time they were sipping hot tea, they were ready to venture into more difficult topics.

"Latie would enjoy watching those two horses play like that, I think," Jondalar said.

"Yes. She does like the horses, doesn't she?"

"She likes you, too, Ayla. She's become quite an admirer." Jondalar hesitated, then continued, "Many people like you and admire you here. You don't really want to go back to the valley and live alone, do you?"

Ayla looked down at the cup in her hands, swirled the last of the tea around with the dregs of the leaves, and took a shallow sip. "It is a relief to be alone, by ourselves, again. I didn't realize how good it could feel to get away from all the people, and there are some of my things in the cave at the valley that I wish I had. But, you are right. Now that I've met the Others, I don't want to live alone all the time. I like Latie, and Deegie, and Talut and Nezzie, everyone… except Frebec."

Jondalar sighed with relief. The first and biggest hurdle had been easy. "Frebec is only one. You can't let one person spoil everything. Talut… and Tulie… would not have invited us to stay with them if they didn't like you, and didn't feel that you had something valuable to offer."

"You have something valuable to offer, Jondalar. Do you want to stay and become a Mamutoi?"

"They have been kind to us, much kinder than simple hospitality requires. I could stay, certainly through the winter, and even longer, and I'd be happy to give them anything I could. But they don't need my flint knapping. Wymez is far better than I am, and Danug will soon be as good. And I've already shown them the spear-thrower. They have seen how it's made. With practice, they could use it. They just have to want it. And I am Jondalar of the Zelandonii."

He stopped and his eyes took on an unfocused look as though he were seeing across a great distance. Then he looked back the way they had come and his forehead knotted in a frown as he tried to think of some explanation. "I must return… someday… if only to tell my mother of my brother's death… and to give Zelandoni a chance to find his spirit and guide it to the next world. I could not become Jondalar of the Mamutoi knowing that, I cannot forget my obligation."

Ayla looked at him closely. She knew he didn't want to stay. It wasn't because of obligations, though he might feel them. He wanted to go home.

"What about you?" Jondalar said, trying to keep his tone and expression neutral. "Do you want to stay and become Ayla of the Mamutoi?"

She closed her eyes, searching for a way to express herself, feeling that she didn't know enough words, or the right words, or that words were just not enough. "Since Broud cursed me, I have had no people, Jondalar. It has made me feel empty. I like the Mamutoi and respect them. I feel at home with them. The Lion Camp is… like Brun's clan… most are good people. I don't know who my people were before the Clan, I don't think I will ever know, but sometimes at night I think… I wish they were Mamutoi."

She looked hard at the man, at his straight yellow hair against the dark fur of his hood, at his handsome face that she thought of as beautiful though he'd told her that wasn't the right word for a man, at his strong, sensitive body and large expressive hands, at his blue eyes that seemed so earnest, and so troubled. "But, before the Mamutoi, you came. You took the emptiness away and filled me with love. I want to be with you, Jondalar."

The anxiety left his eyes, replaced now by the relaxed and easy warmth she had grown used to in the valley, and then by the magnetic, compelling desire that made her body respond with a will of its own. Without any conscious volition, she was drawn to him, felt his mouth find hers and his arms surround her.

"Ayla, my Ayla, I love you so," he cried in a harsh strangulated sob that was filled with anguish and relief. He held her tight against his chest, and yet gently, as they sat on the ground, as though he never wanted to let go, but was afraid she would break. He released his hold just enough to tilt her face up to his, and kissed her forehead, and her eyes, and the tip of her nose, then her mouth, and felt his desire mount. It was cold, they had no place of shelter or warmth, but he wanted her.

He untied the drawstring of her hood, and found her throat and her neck, while his hands reached beneath her parka and her tunic, and found her warm skin and full breasts, with their hard, erect nipples. A low moan escaped her lips as he fondled them, squeezing and pulling firmly. He untied the drawstring of her trousers and reached in to find her furry mound. She pressed up to him when he found her warm moist slit, and felt a tightening, a tingling.

Then she felt under his parka and tunic for his drawstring, untied it, then reached for his hard, throbbing member and rubbed her hands along its shaft. He breathed a loud sigh of pleasure when she bent down and took him into her mouth. She felt the smoothness of his skin with her tongue, and drew him in as far as she could, then pushed him out and drew him in again, still rubbing his warm, curved shaft with her hands.

She heard him moan, start to cry out, and then take a deep breath and gently push her away. "Wait, Ayla, I want you," he said.

"I'd have to take off my leggings and my foot-coverings for that," she said.

"No, you don't, it's too cold out. Turn around, remember?"

"Like Whinney and her stallion," Ayla whispered.

She turned around, went down on her knees. For an instant, the position reminded her not of Whinney and her eager stallion, but of Broud, of being thrown down and forced. But Jondalar's loving touch was not the same. She lowered her waistband, baring her warm, firm backside, and an opening that beckoned to him like a flower to bees with its soft petals and deep pink throat. The invitation was almost too much. He felt a surge of pressure that ached to break loose. After a moment to hold back, he crouched up close to keep her warm while he caressed her smooth fullness, and explored her inviting pocket and ridges and folds of warm wetness and Pleasure with his gentle, knowing touch, until her cries and a new font of warmth told him to hold back no more.

Then he spread her twin mounds apart and guided his full and ready manhood into the deep and willing entrance of her womanhood with an agonizing pleasure that tore a cry from both of them. He withdrew, almost fully, and entered again, pulling her to him, and reveled in her deep embrace. Again he withdrew and entered, and again, and again, until finally in a great burst, the glorious release came.

After a few final strokes that drew out the final measure, and still deep within her warmth, he wrapped his arms around her and rolled them both over on their sides. He held her close, covering her with his body and his parka for a moment while they rested.

Finally they pulled apart and Jondalar sat up. The wind was picking up, and Jondalar glanced at massing clouds with apprehension.

"I should clean myself a little," Ayla said, getting up. "These are new leggings from Deegie."

"When we get back, you can leave them outside to freeze, and then brush it off."

"The stream still has water…"

"It's icy, Ayla!"

"I know. I'll be quick."

Testing her way on the ice, she squatted near the water, and rinsed herself with her hand. As she stepped back on the bank, Jondalar came up behind her, and dried her with the fur of his parka.

"I don't want that to freeze," he said, with a big grin as he patted her with the fur, and then caressed her.

"I think you'll keep it warm enough," she said with a smile, tying her drawstring and straightening her parka.

This was the Jondalar she loved. The man who could make her feel warm and quivery inside with a look of his eyes, or a touch of his hands; the man who knew her body better than she did, and could draw out feelings she didn't know were there; the man who had made her forget the pain of Broud's first forcible entry, and taught her what Pleasures were and should be. The Jondalar she loved was playful, and caring, and loving. That was how he had been in the valley, and now when they were alone. Why was he so different around the Lion Camp?

"You are getting very quick with words, woman. I'm going to have trouble keeping up with you, in my own language!" He put his arms around her waist, and looked down at her, his eyes full of love and pride. "You are good with language, Ayla. I can't believe how fast you learn. How do you do it?"

"I have to. This is my world now. I have no people. I am dead to the Clan, I can't go back."

"You could have people. You could be Ayla of the Mamutoi. If you want to be. Do you?"

"I want to be with you."

"You can still be with me. Just because someone adopts you doesn't mean you can't leave… someday. We could stay here… for a while. And if something happened to me – it could, you know – it might not be so bad to have people. People who want you."

"You mean you wouldn't mind?"

"Mind? No, I wouldn't mind, if that's what you want."

Ayla thought she detected a little hesitation, but he did seem sincere. "Jondalar, I am only Ayla. I have no people. If I am adopted, I would have someone. I would be Ayla of the Mamutoi." She stepped back, away from him. "I need to think about it."

She turned around and walked toward the pack she had been carrying. If I'm going to leave with Jondalar soon, I shouldn't agree, she thought. It wouldn't be fair. But he said he'd be willing to stay. For a while. Maybe, after he lives with the Mamutoi, he'll change his mind and want to make this his home. She wondered if she was trying to find an excuse.

She reached inside her parka for her amulet, and sent out a thought to her totem. "Cave Lion, I wish there was some way I could know what is right. I love Jondalar, but I want to belong to people of my own, too. Talut and Nezzie want to adopt me, they want to make me a daughter of the Lion… the Lion Hearth. And the Lion Camp! Oh, Great Cave Lion, have you been guiding me all along, and I just wasn't paying attention?"

She spun around. Jondalar was still standing where she left him, silently watching her.

"I've decided. I will do it! I will be Ayla of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi!"

She noticed a fleeting frown cross his face before he smiled. "Good, Ayla. I'm glad for you."

"Oh, Jondalar. Will it be right? Will everything turn out all right?"

"No one can answer that. Who could know?" he said, coming toward her, one eye on the darkening sky. "I hope it will… for both of us." They clung to each other or a moment. "I think we should be getting back."

Ayla reached for the parfleche to pack it, but something caught her eye. She went down on one knee, and picked up a deep golden stone. Brushing it off, she looked at it closer. Completely encapsulated within the smooth stone, which had begun to feel warm to the touch, was a complete winged insect.

"Jondalar! Look at this. Have you ever seen anything like it?"

He took it from her, looked it over closely, then looked at her with a bit of awe. "This is amber. My mother has one like it. She places great value on it. This one may be even better." He noticed Ayla staring at him. She looked stunned. He didn't think he'd said anything all that startling. "What is it, Ayla?"

"A sign. It's a sign from my totem, Jondalar. The Spirit of the Great Cave Lion is telling me I made the right decision. He wants me to become Ayla of the Mamutoi!"

The force of the wind intensified as Ayla and Jondalar rode back, and though it was just past noon, the light of the sun was dimmed by clouds of dry bess soil billowing up from the frozen ground. Soon they could hardly see their way through the windblown dust. Flashes of lightning crackled around them in the dry, freezing air, and thunder growled and boomed. Racer reared up in fright as a bolt flashed and a clap of thunder cracked nearby. Whinney nickered anxiously. They dismounted to calm the nervous young horse, and continued on foot leading them both.

By the time they reached the Camp, winds of gale force were driving a dust storm that blackened the sky and blasted their skin. As they came close to the earthlodge, a figure emerged out of the wind-driven gloom holding onto something which flapped and strained as though it were alive.

"There you are. I was getting worried," Talut shouted above the howling and thunder.

"What are you doing? Can we help?" Jondalar asked.

"We made a lean-to for Ayla's horses when it looked like a storm was brewing. I didn't know it would be a dry storm. The wind blew it apart. I think you'd better bring them in. They can stay in the entrance room," Talut said.

"Is it like this often?" Jondalar said, grabbing an end of the large hide that was supposed to have been a windbreak.

"No. Some years we don't have dry storms at all. It will settle down once we get a good snow," Talut said, "then we'll just have blizzards!" he finished with a laugh. He ducked into the earthlodge, then held back the heavy mammoth hide drape so Ayla and Jondalar could lead the horses inside.

The horses were nervous about entering the strange place full of so many unfamiliar smells, but they liked the noisy windstorm even less, and they trusted Ayla. The relief was immediate once they were out of the wind, and they settled down quickly. Ayla was grateful to Talut for his concern for them, though a little surprised. As she went through the second archway, Ayla noticed how cold she was. The stinging grains of dust had distracted her, but the subfreezing temperature and strong wind had chilled her to the bone.

The wind still raged outside the longhouse, rattling the covers over the smoke holes and bellying out the heavy drapes. Sudden drafts sent dust flying and caused the fire in the cooking hearth to flare up. People were gathered in casual groups around the area of the first hearth, finishing up the evening meal, sipping herb tea, talking, waiting for Talut to begin.

Finally he got up and strode toward the Lion Hearth. When he returned he was carrying an ivory staff taller than he was, thicker at the bottom, tapering at the top. It was decorated with a small, spoked wheellike object, which had been fastened to the staff about a third of the way down from the top. White crane feathers were attached to the top half, fanning out in a semicircle, while between the spokes of the bottom half enigmatic pouches, carved ivory, and pieces of fur dangled from thongs. On closer look, Ayla saw that the staff was made from a single, long mammoth tusk which, by some unknown method, had been made straight. How, she wondered, did someone take the curve out of a mammoth tusk?

Everyone quieted and turned their attention to the headman. He looked at Tulie; she nodded. Then he banged the butt end of the Staff on the ground four times.

"I have a serious matter to present to the Lion Camp," Talut began. "Something that is the concern of everyone, therefore I talk with the Speaking Staff so all will listen carefully and no one may interrupt. Anyone who wishes to speak on this matter may request the Speaking Staff."

There was a rustle of excitement as people sat up and took notice.

"Ayla and Jondalar came to the Lion Camp not long ago. When I numbered the days they have been here, I was surprised that it has been such a short time. They already feel like old friends, like they belong. I think most of you feel the same. Because of such warm feelings of friendship for our relative, Jondalar, and his friend, Ayla, I had hoped they would extend their visit and planned to ask them to stay through the winter. But in the short time they have been here, they have shown more than friendship. Both of them have brought valuable skills and knowledge, and offered them to us without reservation, just as though they were one of us.

"Wymez recommends Jondalar as a skilled worker of flint. He has shared his knowledge freely with both Danug and Wymez. More than that, he has brought with him a new hunting weapon, a spear-thrower that extends both the range and power of a spear."

There were nods and comments of approval, and Ayla noticed again that the Mamutoi seldom sat quietly, but spoke out with comments in active participation.

"Ayla brings many unusual talents," Talut continued. "She is skilled and accurate with the spear-thrower, and with her own weapon, the sling. Mamut says she is a Searcher, though untrained, and Nezzie thinks she may be a Caller as well. Perhaps not, but it is true that she can make horses obey her, and they allow her to ride on their backs. She has even taught us a way of speaking without words, which has helped us to understand Rydag in a new way. But perhaps most important, she is a Healer. She has already saved the lives of two children… and she has a wonderful remedy for headaches!"

The last comment brought a wave of laughter.

"Both of them bring so much, I do not want the Lion Camp or the Mamutoi to lose them. I have asked them to stay with us, not just for the winter, but always. In the name of Mut, Mother of All" – Talut pounded the ground with the Staff once, firmly – "I ask that they join us, and that you accept them as Mamutoi."

Talut nodded to Ayla and Jondalar. They stood up and approached him with the formality of a prearranged ceremony. Tulie, who had been waiting off to the side, moved up to stand beside her brother.

"I ask for the Speaking Staff!" she said.

Talut passed it to her.

"As headwoman of the Lion Camp, I state my agreement with Talut's comments. Jondalar and Ayla would be valuable additions to the Lion Camp, and to the Mamutoi." She faced the tall blond man. "Jondalar," she said, stamping the Speaking Staff three times, "Tulie and Barzec have asked you to be a son of the Aurochs Hearth. We have spoken for you. How do you speak, Jondalar?"

He approached her, and took the Staff she offered and stamped it three times. "I am Jondalar of the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii, son of Marthona, former leader of the Ninth Cave, born to the hearth of Dalanar, leader of the Lanzadonii," he began. Since it was a formal occasion he decided to use his more formal address and name his primary ties, which brought smiles and nods of approval. All the foreign names gave the ceremony an exotic and important flavor. "I am greatly honored by your invitation, but I must be fair and tell you I have strong obligations. Someday I must return to the Zelandonii. I must tell my mother of my brother's death, and I must tell Zelandoni, our Mamut, so a Search for his spirit can be made to guide him to the world of the spirits. I value our kinship, I am so warmed by your friendship, I do not want to leave. I wish to stay with you, my friends and relatives, for as long as I can." Jondalar passed the Speaking Staff back to Tulie.

"We are saddened that you cannot join our hearth, Jondalar, but we understand your obligations. You have our respect. Since we are related, through your brother who was a cross-mate of Tholie, you are welcome to remain as long as you wish," Tulie said, then passed the Staff back to Talut.

"Ayla," Talut said, stamping the Staff three times on the ground, "Nezzie and I want to adopt you as a daughter of the Lion Hearth. We have spoken for you. How do you speak?"

Ayla took the Staff and banged it on the ground three times. "I am Ayla. I have no people. I am honored and pleased to be asked to become one of you. I would feel proud to be Ayla of the Mamutoi," she said, in a carefully rehearsed speech.

Talut took the Staff back and stamped it four times. "If there are no objections, I will close this special meeting."

"I request the Speaking Staff," a voice from the audience called out. Everyone looked surprised to see Frebec approaching.

He took the Staff from the headman, struck the ground three times. "I do not agree. I do not want Ayla," he said.

14

The people of the Lion Camp were stunned into silence. Then there was a hubbub of shocked surprise. The headman had sponsored Ayla, with the headwoman in full accord. Though everyone knew Frebec's feelings about Ayla, no one else seemed to share them. What's more, Frebec and the Crane Hearth hardly seemed in a position to object. They had been accepted by the Lion Camp recently themselves, after several other Camps had turned them down, only because Nezzie and Talut had argued in their behalf. The Crane Hearth once had a high status, and there had been people in other Camps who had been willing to sponsor them, but there had always been dissenters, and there could be no dissenters. Everyone had to agree. After all the headman's support, it seemed ungrateful for Frebec to oppose him, and no one had expected it, least of all Talut.

The commotion quickly died down when Talut took the Speaking Staff from Frebec, held it up and shook it, invoking its power. "Frebec has the Staff. Let him speak," Talut said, handing the ivory shaft back.

Frebec hit the ground three times and continued, "I do not want Ayla because I don't think she has offered enough to make her a Mamutoi." There was an undercurrent of objection to his statement, especially after Talut's words of praise, but not enough to interrupt the speaker. "Do we ask any stranger who stops for a visit to become Mamutoi?"

Even with the constraint of the Speaking Staff, it was difficult for the Camp to keep from speaking out. "What do you mean she has nothing to offer? What about her hunting skill?" Deegie called out, full of righteous anger. Her mother, the headwoman, had not accepted Ayla on first appearances. Only after careful consideration had she agreed to go along with Talut. How could this Frebec object?

"So what if she hunts? Is everyone who hunts made one of us?" Frebec said. "That's not a good reason. She won't be hunting much longer anyway, not after she has children."

"Having children is more important! That will give her more status," Deegie flared.

"Don't you think I know that? We don't even know if she can have children, and if she doesn't have children, she won't be of much value at all. But we weren't talking about children, we were talking about hunting. Just because she hunts is not a good enough reason to make her a Mamutoi," Frebec argued.

"What about the spear-thrower? You can't deny it is a weapon of value, and she is good at it and already showing others how to use it," Tornec said.

"She did not bring it. Jondalar did, and he is not joining us."

Danug spoke out. "She might be a Searcher, or a Caller. She can make horses obey her, she even rides on one."

"Horses are food. The Mother meant for us to hunt them, not live with them. I'm not even sure it's right to ride them. And no one knows for sure what she might be. She might be a Searcher, she might be a Caller. She might be the Mother on earth, but she might not. Since when is 'might be' a reason to make someone one of us?" No one had been able to counter his objections. Frebec was beginning to enjoy himself, and all the attention he was getting.

Mamut looked at Frebec with some surprise. Though the shaman completely disagreed with him, he had to concede that Frebec's arguments were clever. It was too bad they were so misdirected.

"Ayla has taught Rydag to talk, when no one thought he could," Nezzie shouted, joining in the debate.

"Talk!" he sneered. "You can call a lot of hand waving 'talking' if you want to, but I don't. I can't think of anything more useless than making stupid gestures at a flathead. That's not a reason to accept her. If anything, it's a reason not to."

"And in spite of the obvious, I suppose you still don't believe she is a Healer?" Ranec commented. "You realize, I hope, that if you drive Ayla out, you may be the one who is sorry if there is no one here to help Fralie when she delivers."

Ranec had always been an anomaly to Frebec. In spite of his high status and renown as a carver, Frebec didn't know what to make of the brown-skinned man, and was not comfortable around him. Frebec always had the feeling Ranec was being disdainful or making fun of him when he used that subtle ironic tone. He didn't like it, and besides, there was probably something unnatural about such dark skin.

"You're right, Ranec," Frebec said in a loud voice. "I don't think she's a Healer. How could anyone growing up with those animals learn to be a Healer? And Fralie has already had babies. Why should this time be any different? Unless having that animal woman here brings her bad luck. That flathead boy already brings down the status of this Camp. Can't you see? She'll only bring it down more. Why would anyone want a woman raised by animals? And what would people think if anyone came here and found horses inside a lodge? No, I don't want an animal woman who lived with flatheads to be one of the Lion Camp."

There was a great commotion over his comments about the Lion Camp, but Tulie raised her voice above the tumult. "By whose measure do you say the status of this Camp has been brought down? Rydag does not take my status from me, I am still a leading voice on the Council of Sisters. Talut has lost no standing either."

"People are always saying 'that Camp with the flathead boy.' It makes me ashamed to say I am a member," Frebec shouted back.

Tulie stood her tallest beside the rather slightly built man. "You are welcome to leave at any time," she said in her coldest voice.

"Now look what you've done," Crozie cried. "Fralie expecting a child, and you're going to force her out, in this cold, with no place to go. Why did I ever agree to your joining? Why did I ever believe someone who paid such a low Bride Price would be good enough for her? My poor daughter, my poor Fralie."

The old woman's wails were drowned out by the general noise level of angry voices and arguments aimed at Frebec. Ayla turned her back and walked toward the Mammoth Hearth. She noticed Rydag watching the meeting with big sad eyes from the Lion Hearth, and went to him instead. She sat down beside him, felt his chest and looked at him carefully to make sure he was all right. Then, without trying to make any conversation, because she didn't know what to say, she picked him up. She held him on her lap, rocking back and forth, humming a tuneless monotone under her breath. She had once rocked her son that way, and later, alone in her cave in her valley, she had often rocked herself to sleep the same way.

"Does no one respect the Speaking Staff?" Talut roared, overpowering the rest of the furor. His eyes blazed. He was angry. Ayla had never seen him so angry, but she admired his self-control when he next spoke. "Crozie, we would not turn Fralie out into the cold, and you insult me and the Lion Camp by suggesting that we would."

The old woman looked at the headman with mouth agape. She hadn't really thought they would turn Fralie out. She had merely been haranguing Frebec, and didn't think about it being taken as an insult. She had the decency to blush with shame, which surprised some people, but she did understand the finer points of accepted behavior. Fralie's status, after all, had first come from her. Crozie was highly esteemed in her own right, or had been until she lost so much, and made herself and everyone around her so miserable. She could still claim the distinction if not the substance.

"Frebec, you may feel embarrassment to be a member of the Lion Camp," Talut said, "but if this Camp has lost any status, it is because this was the only Camp that would take you in. As Tulie said, no one is forcing you to stay. You are free to leave any time, but we will not put you out, not with a sick woman who will be giving birth this winter. Perhaps you have not been around pregnant women very much before, but whether you realize it or not, Fralie's illness is more than pregnancy. Even I know that much.

"But that is not the reason this meeting was called. No matter how you feel about it, or how we feel about it, you are a member of the Lion Camp. I have stated my wish to adopt Ayla to my hearth, to make her Mamutoi. But everyone must agree, and you have objected."

By this time, Frebec was squirming. It was one thing to make himself feel important by objecting and thwarting everyone else, but Talut had just reminded him of the humiliation and desperation he had felt when he was trying so hard to find a Camp to establish a new hearth, with his treasured new woman, who was more desirable and had brought him more status than he ever had in his life.

Mamut was observing him closely. Frebec had never been particularly outstanding. He had little status, since his mother had little to bestow on him, no accomplishments to his credit, and few obvious qualities or talents of any real merit. He wasn't hated, but neither was he well liked. He seemed to be a rather mediocre man of average abilities. But, he showed skill in arguing. Though false, his arguments had logic. He might have more intelligence than he had been given credit for, and apparently he had high aspirations. Joining with Fralie was a great achievement, for a man like him. He would bear closer watching.

Even to make an offer for a woman like her showed a certain daring. Bride Price was the basis of economic value among the Mamutoi; brides were the standard of currency. A man's standing in his society came from the woman who gave birth to him and the woman or women he could attract – by status, or hunting prowess, or skill, or talent, or charm – to live with him. Finding a woman of high status willing to become his woman was like finding great riches, and Frebec was not going to let her go.

But why had she accepted him? Mamut wondered. Certainly there were other men who had made offers; Frebec had added to her difficulties. He had so little to offer, and Crozie was so disagreeable, that Fralie's Camp had turned them out, and Frebec's Camp had refused them. Then one after another of the other Camps had turned him down, even with a pregnant, high-status woman. And each time, out of her own feelings of panic, Crozie made it worse, berating him and blaming him, and making them even less desirable.

Frebec had been grateful when the Lion Camp had said yes, but they had been one of the last he'd tried. It wasn't that they didn't have a high station, but they were looked upon as having an unusual assortment of members. Talut had the ability to see the unusual as special rather than odd. He'd known status all his life, he was looking for something more, and he found it in the unusual. He came to relish that quality and fostered it in his Camp. Talut, himself, was the biggest man anyone had ever seen, not only among the Mamutoi, but the neighboring peoples as well. Tulie was the biggest and strongest woman. Mamut was the oldest man. Wymez was the best flint knapper, Ranec not only the darkest man but the best carver. And Rydag was the only flathead child. Talut wanted Ayla, who was most unusual with her horses, and her skills, and her gifts, and he wouldn't mind Jondalar, who had come from the farthest away.

Frebec didn't want to be unusual, especially since he could only see himself viewed as the least of something. He was still seeking standing among the ordinary, and he had begun by making a virtue of the most common. He was Mamutoi, therefore he was better than everyone who was not, better than anyone different. Ranec, with his dark skin – and his biting, satiric wit – wasn't really Mamutoi. He hadn't even been born among them, but Frebec was, and he was certainly better than those animals, those flatheads. That boy Nezzie loved so much had no status at all since he was boon to a flathead woman.

And that Ayla, who came with her horses and her tall stranger, had already caught the disdainful eye of dark Ranec, whom all the women wanted in spite of his difference, or because of it. She hadn't even looked at Frebec, as though she knew he wasn't worth her attention. It didn't matter that she was skilled, or gifted, or beautiful, he was certainly better than she; she wasn't a Mamutoi and he was. What's more, she had lived with those flatheads. Now Talut wanted to make her a Mamutoi.

Frebec knew he was the cause of the unpleasant scene that had erupted. He had proved he was important enough to keep her out, but he had made the big headman angrier than he'd ever seen him, and it was a little frightening to see the huge bear of a man so angry. Talut could pick him up and break him in two. At the very least, Talut could make him leave. Then how long would he keep his high-status woman?

Yet, for all his controlled anger, Talut was treating Frebec with more respect than he was accustomed to receiving. His comments had not been ignored or cast aside.

"Whether your objections are reasonable does not matter," Talut continued, coldly. "I believe she has many unusual talents that could bring benefit to us. You have disputed that and say she has nothing of value to offer. I don't know what could possibly be offered that someone could not dispute, if they wished."

"Talut," Jondalar said, "excuse my interruption while you hold the Speaking Staff, but I think I know something that could not be disputed."

"You do?"

"Yes, I think so. May I speak with you alone?"

"Tulie, will you hold the Staff?" Talut said, then walked toward the Lion Hearth with Jondalar. A murmur of curiosity followed them.

Jondalar went to Ayla and spoke with her. She nodded, and putting Rydag down, got up and hurried to the Mammoth Hearth.

"Talut, are you willing to put out all the fires?" Jondalar said.

Talut frowned. "All the fires? It's cold out, and windy. It could get cold inside quickly."

"I know, but believe me, it will be worth it. For Ayla to demonstrate this to the best effect, it needs to be dark. It won't be cold for long."

Ayla came back with some stones in her hands. Talut looked from her, to Jondalar, and back to her again. Then he nodded his head in agreement. A fire could always be started again, even if it took some effort. They went back to the cooking hearth, and Talut spoke to Tulie, privately. There was some discussion and Mamut was drawn in, then Tulie spoke to Barzec. Barzec signaled Druwez and Danug, and all three put on parkas, picked up large, tightly woven baskets and went outside.

The murmur of conversation was full of excitement. Something special was going on and the Camp was full of anticipation, almost the way it was before a special ceremony. They hadn't expected secret consultations and a mysterious demonstration.

Barzec and the boys were back quickly with baskets full of loose dirt. Then, starting at the far end, at the Hearth of the Aurochs, they stirred the banked coals or small sustaining fires in each of the firepits and poured the dirt over them to smother the flames. The people of the Camp became nervous when they realized what was going on.

As the longhouse darkened with each fire that was put out, everyone stopped talking and the lodge grew still. The wind beyond the walls howled louder, and the drafts felt colder and brought with them a deeper and more ominous chill. Fire was appreciated and understood, if somewhat taken for granted, but they knew their life depended on it when they saw their fires go out.

Finally only the fire in the large cooking hearth remained. Ayla had her fire-starting materials ready beside the fireplace, and then, with a nod from Talut, Barzec, sensing the dramatic moment, dumped the dirt on the fire as the people gasped.

In an instant the lodge was filled with darkness. It wasn't just an absence of light, but a fullness of dark. A smothering, uncompromising, deep black occupied every empty space. There were no stars, no glowing orb, no nacreous, shimmering clouds. A hand brought in front of the eyes could not be seen. There was no dimension, no shadow, no silhouette of black on black. The sense of sight had lost all value.

A child cried and was hushed by his mother. Then breathing was noticed, and shuffling, and a cough. Someone spoke in a quiet voice and was answered by one with a deeper tone. The smell of burned bone was strong, but mingled in was a multitude of other odors, scents, and aromas: processed leathers, food that was cooked and food that was stored, grass mats, dried herbs, and the smell of people, of feet and bodies and warm breaths.

The Camp waited in the dark, wondering. Not exactly frightened, but a little apprehensive. A long time seemed to pass and they began to get restless. What was taking so long?

The timing had been left up to Mamut. It was second nature to the old shaman to create dramatic effects, almost instinct to know just the right moment. Ayla felt a tap on her shoulder. It was the signal she was waiting for. She had a piece of iron pyrite in one hand, flint in the other, and on the ground in front of her was a small pile of fireweed fluff. In the pitch-black darkness of the lodge, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then struck the iron pyrite with the flint.

A large spark glowed, and in the perfect dark the tiny light illuminated just the young woman kneeling on the ground for a long moment, bringing forth a startled gasp and sounds of awe from the Camp. Then it went out. Ayla struck again, this time closer to the tinder she had prepared. The spark fell on the quickly flammable material. Ayla bent close to blow, and in a moment it burst into flame, and she heard ahhs and ohhs and exclamations of wonder.

She fed small shavings of woody brush from a nearby pile, and when they caught, slightly larger sticks and kindling. Then she sat back and watched while Nezzie cleaned the dirt and ashes out of the cooking hearth and transferred the flame to it. Regulating the damper of the flue that brought wind from outside, she started the bone burning. The attention of the people of the Camp had been riveted on the process, but after the fire was going, they realized how short a time it had taken. It was magic! What had she done to create fire so fast?

Talut shook the Speaking Staff, and struck the ground three times with the thick end. "Now does anyone have any more objections to Ayla becoming a Mamutoi, and a member of the Lion Camp?" he asked.

"Will she show us how to do that magic?" Frebec said.

"She will not only show us, she has promised to give one of her firestones to each hearth in this Camp," Talut replied.

"I have no more objections," Frebec said.

Ayla and Jondalar sorted through their traveling packs to gather together all the iron pyrite nodules they had with them and selected six of the best. She had relit the fires of each hearth the night before, showing them the process, but she was tired and it was too late to look through their packs for firestones before they went to bed.

The six stones, grayish yellow with a metallic sheen, made a small, insignificant pile on the bed platform, yet one like them had made the difference between her acceptance and her rejection. Seeing them, no one would ever guess what magic lay hidden in the soul of those rocks.

Ayla picked them up and, holding them in her hands, looked up at Jondalar.

"If everyone else wanted me, why would they let one person keep me out?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said, "but everyone in a group like this has to live with everyone else. It can cause a lot of bad feeling if one person really doesn't like another person, especially when the weather keeps everyone inside for a long time. People end up taking sides, arguments can lead to fights, and someone may get hurt, or worse. That leads to anger, and then someone wants revenge. Sometimes the only way to avert more tragedy is to break up the group… or to pay a high penalty and send the troublemaker away…"

His forehead knotted in pain as he closed his eyes for a moment, and Ayla wondered what caused his grief.

"But Frebec and Crozie fight all the time, and people don't like that," she said.

"The rest of the Camp knew about that before they agreed, or at least they had some idea. Everyone had a chance to say no, so no one can blame anyone else. Once you've agreed to something, you tend to feel it's up to you to work it out, and you know it's only for the winter. Changes are easier to make in summer."

Ayla nodded. She still wasn't entirely certain that he wanted her to become one of these people, but showing the firestone had been his idea, and it worked. They both walked to the Lion Hearth to deliver the stones. Talut and Tulie were deep in conversation. Nezzie and Mamut were occasionally drawn in, but they listened more than talked.

"Here are firestones I promised," Ayla said when they acknowledged her approach. "You can give them today."

"Oh, no," Tulie said. "Not today. Save them for the ceremony. We were just talking about that. They will be part of the gifts. We have to decide on a value for them so we can plan what else will be necessary to give. They should have a very high value, not only for themselves but for trading, and for the status they will give you."

"What gifts?" Ayla said.

"It is customary, when someone is adopted," Mamut explained, "for gifts to be exchanged. The person who is adopted receives gifts from everyone, and in the name of the hearth that is adopting, gifts are distributed to the rest of the hearths in the Camp. They can be small, just a token exchange, or they can be quite valuable. It depends on the circumstances."

"I think the firestones are valuable enough to be a sufficient gift for each hearth," Talut said.

"Talut, I would agree with you if Ayla were Mamutoi already and her value was established," Tulie said, "but in this case, we are trying to set her Bride Price. The entire Camp will benefit if we can justify a high value for her. Since Jondalar has declined to be adopted, at least for now…" Tulie's smile, to show she bore him no animosity, was almost flirtatious, but not in the least coy. It simply expressed her conviction that she was attractive and desirable. "I will be happy to contribute some gifts for distribution."

"What kind of gifts?" Ayla asked.

"Oh, just gifts… they can be many things," Tulie said. "Furs are nice, and clothes… tunics, leggings, boots, or the leather to make them. Deegie makes beautifully dyed leather. Amber and seashells, and ivory beads, for necklaces and decorating clothes. Long teeth of wolves and other meat eaters are quite valuable. So are ivory carvings. Flint, salt… food is good to give, especially if it can be stored. Anything well made, baskets, mats, belts, knives. I think it's important to give as much as possible, so when everyone shows the gifts at the Meeting, it will appear that you have an abundance, to show your status. It doesn't really matter if most of it is donated to Talut and Nezzie for you."

"You and Talut and Nezzie do not have to give for me. I have things to give," Ayla said.

"Yes, of course, you have the firestones. And they are the most valuable, but they don't look very impressive. Later people will realize their worth, but first impressions make a difference."

"Tulie is right," Nezzie said. "Most young women spend years making and accumulating gifts to give away at their Matrimonials, or if they are adopted."

"Are so many people adopted by the Mamutoi?" Jondalar asked.

"Not outsiders," Nezzie said, "but Mamutoi often adopt other Mamutoi. Every Camp needs a sister and brother to be headwoman and headman, but not every man is lucky enough to have a sister like Tulie. If something happens to one or the other, or if a young man or a young woman wants to start a new Camp, a sister or a brother may be adopted. But, don't worry. I have many things that you can give, Ayla, and even Latie has offered some of her things for you to give."

"But I have things to give, Nezzie. I have things in cave at valley," Ayla said. "I spent years making many things."

"It's not necessary for you to go back…" Tulie said, privately thinking that whatever she might have would be very primitive with her flathead background. How could she tell the young woman that her gifts probably would not be suitable? It could be awkward.

"I want to go back," Ayla insisted. "Other things I need. My healing plants. Food stored. And food for horses." She turned to Jondalar. "I want to go back."

"I suppose we could. If we hurried and didn't stop along the way, I think we could make it… if the weather clears."

"Usually, after the first cold snap like this, we get some nice weather," Talut said. "It's unpredictable, though. It can turn any time."

"Well, if we get some decent weather maybe we'll take a chance and go back to the valley," Jondalar said, and was rewarded by one of Ayla's beautiful smiles.

There were some things he wanted, too. Those firestones had made quite an impression, and the rocky beach at the bend of the river in Ayla's valley had been full of them. Someday, he hoped, he would return and share with his people everything he had learned and discovered: the fire-stones, the spear-thrower, and for Dalanar, Wymez's trick of heating flint. Someday…

"Hurry back," Nezzie called out, holding her hand up with the palm facing her, and waving goodbye.

Ayla and Jondalar waved back. They were mounted double on Whinney, with Racer on a rope behind, and looked down on the people of the Lion Camp who had gathered to see them off. As excited as she felt about returning to the valley that had been her home for three years, Ayla felt a pang of sorrow at leaving behind people who already seemed like family.

Rydag, standing on one side of Nezzie, and Rugie on the other, clung to her as they waved. Ayla couldn't help noticing how little resemblance there was between them. One was a small image of Nezzie, the other half-Clan, yet they had been raised as brother and sister. With a sudden insight, Ayla recalled that Oga had nursed Durc, along with her own son, Grev, as milk brothers. Grey was fully Clan and Durc only half; the difference between them had been as great.

Ayla signaled Whinney with pressure of legs and shift in position, so second nature she hardly thought of it as guiding the mare. They turned and started up the slope.

The trip back was not the leisurely one they had made on their way out. They traveled steadily, making no exploratory side trips or hunting forays, no early stops to relax or enjoy Pleasures. Expecting to return, they had noted landmarks as they were traveling from the valley, certain outcrops, highlands, and rock formations, valleys and watercourses, but the changing season had altered the landscape.

In part, the vegetation had changed its aspect. The protected valleys where they had stopped had taken on a seasonal variation that caused an uneasy sense of unfamiliarity. The arctic birch and willow had lost all their leaves, and their scrawny limbs shivering in the wind seemed shriveled and lifeless. Conifers – white spruce, larch, stone pine – hale and proud in their green-needled vigor, were prominent instead, and even the isolated dwarfs on the steppes, contorted by winds, gained substance by comparison. But more confusing were the changes in surface features wrought, in that frigid periglacial land, by permafrost.

Permafrost – permanently frozen ground – any part of the earth's crust, from the surface to deep bedrock, that remains frozen year-round, was brought on, in that land far south of polar regions so long ago, by continent-spanning sheets of ice, a mile or two – or more – high. A complex interaction of climate, surface, and underground conditions created and maintained the frozen ground. Sunshine had an effect, and standing water, vegetation, soil density, wind, snow.

Average yearly temperatures only a few degrees lower than those that would later maintain temperate conditions, were enough to cause the massive glaciers to encroach upon the land and the formation of permafrost farther south. The winters were long and cold, and occasional storms brought heavy snows and intense blizzards, but the snowfall over the season was relatively light, and many days were clear. The summers were short, with a few days so hot they belied the nearness of any glacial mass of ice, but generally it was cloudy and cool, with little rain.

Though some portion of the ground was always frozen, permafrost was not a permanent, unchanging state; it was as inconstant and fickle as the seasons. In the depths of winter when it was frozen solid all the way through, the land seemed passive, hard, and ungiving, but it was not what it seemed. When the season turned, the surface softened, only a few inches where thick ground cover or dense soils or too much shade resisted the gentle warmth of summer, but the active layer thawed down several feet on sunny slopes of well-drained gravels with little vegetation.

The yielding layer was an illusion, though. Beneath the surface the iron-hard grip of winter still ruled. Impenetrable ice held sway, and with the thaw and forces of gravity, saturated soils, and their burden of rocks and trees, crept and slid and flowed across the water-lubricated table of ground still frozen below. Slumps occurred and cave-ins as the surface warmed, and where the summer melt could find no outlet, bogs and swamps and thaw-lakes appeared.

When the cycle turned once more, the active layer above the frozen ground turned hard again, but its cold and icy countenance disguised a restless heart. The extreme stresses and pressures caused heaving, thrusting, and buckling. The frozen ground split and cracked and then filled with ice, which, to relieve stress, was expelled as ice wedges. Pressures filled holes with mud, and caused fine silt to rise in silt boils and frost blisters. As the freezing water expanded, mounds and hills of muddy ice-pingos – rose up out of swampy lowlands reaching heights up to two hundred feet and diameters of several hundred.

As Ayla and Jondalar retraced their steps, they discovered that the relief of the landscape had changed, making landmarks misleading. Certain small streams they thought they remembered had disappeared. They had iced over closer to their source, and become dry downstream. Hills of ice had appeared where none had been before, risen out of summer bogs and swampy lowlands where dense, fine-textured substrates caused poor drainage. Stands of trees grew on talik – islands of unfrozen layers surrounded by permafrost – which sometimes gave a misleading impression of a small valley, where they could not recall having seen one.

Jondalar was not familiar with the general terrain and more than once deferred to Ayla's better memory. When she was unsure, Ayla followed Whinney's lead. Whinney had brought her home more than once before, and seemed to know where she was going. Sometimes riding double on the mare, other times trading off, or walking to give the horse a rest, they pushed on until they were forced to stop for the night. Then they made a simple camp with a small fire, their hide tent, and sleeping furs. They cooked cracked, parched wild grain into a hot mush, and Ayla brewed a hot herbal beverage.

In the morning, they drank a hot tea for warmth while they packed up, then on the way they ate ground dried meat and dried berries that were mixed with fat and shaped into small cakes. Except for a hare they accidentally flushed, which Ayla brought down with her sling, they didn't hunt. But they did supplement the traveling food Nezzie had given them with the oily rich and nutritious pignon seeds from the cones of stone pines, gathered at stopping places along the way, and thrown on the fire to open with a pop.

As the terrain around them gradually changed, becoming rocky and more rugged with ravines and steep-walled canyons, Ayla felt a growing sense of excitement. The territory had a familiar feel, like the landscape south and west of her valley. When she saw an escarpment with a particular pattern of coloration in the strata, her heart leaped.

"Jondalar! Look! See that!" she cried, pointing. "We're almost there!"

Even Whinney seemed excited, and without being urged, increased her pace. Ayla watched for another landmark, a stone outcrop with a distinctive shape which reminded her of a lioness crouching. When she found it, they turned north until they came to the edge of a steep slope strewn with gravel and loose rocks. They stopped and looked over the edge. At the bottom, a small river, flowing east, glinted in the sun as it splashed over rocks. They dismounted and carefully picked their way down. The horses started across, then paused to drink. Ayla found the stepping-stones jutting out of the water, with only one wide space to jump, that she had always used. She took a drink, too, when they reached the other side.

"The water is sweeter here. Look how clear it is!" she exclaimed. "It's not muddy at all. You can see the bottom. And look, Jondalar, the horses are here!"

Jondalar smiled affectionately at her exuberance, feeling a similar, if milder, sense of homecoming at the sight of the familiar long valley. The harsh winds and frost of the steppes brushed the protected pocket with a lighter touch, and even stripped of summer leaves, a richer, fuller growth was apparent. The steep slope, which they had just descended, rose precipitously to a sheer rock wall as it advanced down the valley on the left. A wide fringe of brush and trees bordered the opposite bank of the stream running along its base, then thinned out to a meadow of golden hay billowing in waves in the afternoon sun. The level field of waist-high grass sloped gradually up to the steppes on the right, but it narrowed and the incline steepened toward the far end of the valley until it became the other wall of a narrow gorge.

Halfway down, a small herd of steppe horses had stopped grazing and was looking their way. One of them neighed. Whinney tossed her head and answered. The herd watched them approach until they were quite close. Then, as the strange scent of humans continued to advance, they wheeled as one, and with pounding hooves and flying tails, galloped up the gentle slope to the open steppes above. The two humans on the back of one horse stopped to watch them go. So did the young horse attached by a rope.

Racer, with head high and ears pitched forward, followed them as far as his lead would allow, then stood with neck outstretched and nostrils wide, watching after them. Whinney nickered to him as they started down the valley again, and he came back and followed behind.

As they hurried upstream toward the narrow end of the valley, they could see the small river swirling in a sharp turn around a jutting wall and a rocky beach on the right. On the other side of it was a large pile of rocks, driftwood, and bones, antlers, horns, and tusks of every variety. Some were skeletons from the steppes, others were the remains of animals caught in flash floods, carried downstream, and thrown against the wall.

Ayla could hardly wait. She slid off Whinney's back and raced up a steep, narrow path alongside the bone pile to the top of the wall, which formed a ledge in front of a hole in the face of the rock cliff. She almost ran inside, but checked herself at the last minute. This was the place where she had lived alone, and she had survived because never for a moment did she forget to be alert to possible danger. Caves were used not only by people. Edging up along the outside wall, she unwound her sling from her head and stooped to pick up some chunks of rock.

Carefully, she looked inside. She saw only darkness, but her nose detected a faint smell of wood burned long ago, and a somewhat fresher musky scent of wolverine. But that, too, was old. She stepped inside the opening and let her eyes adjust to the dim light, and then looked around.

She felt the pressure of tears filling her eyes, and struggled to hold them back to no avail. There it was, her cave. She was home. Everything was so familiar, yet the place where she had lived for so long seemed deserted and forlorn. The light streaming in from the hole above the entrance showed her that her nose had been right, and closer inspection brought a gasp of dismay. The cave was in a shambles. Some animal, perhaps more than one, had indeed broken in, and had left the evidence scattered around. She wasn't sure how much damage had been done.

Jondalar appeared at the entrance then. He came in, followed by Whinney and Racer. The cave had been home to the mare, too, and the only home Racer knew until they met the Lion Camp.

"It looks as if we've had a visitor," he said when he became aware of the devastation. "This place is a mess!"

Ayla heaved a big sigh and wiped a tear away. "I'd better get a fire going and torches lit so we can see how much has been ruined. But first I'd better unpack Whinney so she can rest and graze."

"Do you think we should just let them run free like that? Racer looked like he was ready to follow those horses. Maybe we should tie them up." Jondalar had some misgivings.

"Whinney has always run free," Ayla said, feeling a little shocked. "I can't tie her up. She's my friend. She stays with me because she wants to. She went to live with a herd once, when she wanted a stallion, and I missed her so much, I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't had Baby. But she came back. She will stay, and, as long as she does, so will Racer, at least until he grows up. Baby left me. Racer might, too, just like children leave their mothers' hearths when they grow up. But horses are different from lions. I think if he becomes a friend, like Whinney, he might stay."

Jondalar nodded. "All right, you know them better than I do." Ayla was, after all, the expert. The only expert when it came to horses. "Why don't I make the fire while you unpack her, then?"

As he went to the places where Ayla had always kept the fire-starting materials and wood, not realizing how familiar her cave had become to him in the short summer he had lived there with her, Jondalar wondered how he could make Racer a good friend. He still didn't understand completely how Ayla communicated with Whinney so that she went where the woman wanted her to when they were riding, and stayed nearby though she had the freedom to leave. Maybe he'd never learn, but he would like to try. Still, until he learned, it wouldn't hurt to keep Racer on a rope, at least when they traveled where there might be other horses.

A check of the cave and its contents told its story. A wolverine or a hyena, Ayla couldn't tell which since both had been in the cave at different times and their tracks were intermixed, had broken into one of the caches of dried meat. It was cleaned out. One basket of grain they had picked for Whinney and Racer, which had been left fairly exposed, had been chewed into in several places. A variety of small rodents judging by the tracks – voles, pikas, ground squirrels, jerboas, and giant hamsters – had made off with the bonanza and hardly a seed was left. They found one nest stuffed with the plunder beneath a pile of hay nearby. But most of the baskets of grains and roots and dried fruits, which had either been set into holes dug into the dirt floor of the cave, or protected by rocks piled on them, suffered far less damage.

Ayla was glad they had decided to put the soft leather hides and furs she had made over the years in a sturdy basket and stash it in a cairn. The large pile of rocks had proved too much for the marauding beasts, but the leather left over from the clothes Ayla had made for Jondalar and herself before they left, which had not been put away, was chewed to shreds. Another cairn which held, among other things, a rawhide container filled with carefully rendered fat stored in small sausagelike sections of deer intestines, had been the object of repeated assaults. One corner of the parfleche had been torn out by teeth and claws, one sausage broken into, but the cairn had stood.

In addition to getting into the stored food, the animals had prowled through other storage areas, knocked over stacks of hand crafted and smoothed wooden bowls and cups, dragged around baskets and mats twined and woven in subtle patterns and designs, defecated in several places, and in general created havoc with whatever they could find. But the actual damage was much less than it first appeared, and they had essentially ignored her large pharmacopoeia of dried and preserved herbal medicines.

By evening, Ayla was feeling much better. They had cleaned and restored order to the cave, determined that the loss was not too great, cooked and eaten a meal, and even explored the valley to see what changes had taken place. With a fire in the hearth, sleeping furs spread out over clean hay in the shallow trench which Ayla had used as a bed, and Whinney and Racer comfortably settled in their place on the other side of the entrance, Ayla finally felt at home.

"It's hard to believe I'm back," Ayla said, sitting on a mat in front of the fire beside Jondalar. "I feel as though I've been gone a lifetime, but it hasn't been long at all."

"No, it hasn't been long."

"I've learned so much, maybe that's why it seems long. It was good that you convinced me to go with you, Jondalar, and I'm glad we met Talut and the Mamutoi. Do you know how afraid I was to meet the Others?"

"I knew you were worried about it, but I was sure once you got to know some people, you'd like them."

"It wasn't just meeting people. It was meeting the Others. To the Clan, that's what they were, and though I'd been told all my life I was born to the Others, I still thought of myself as Clan. Even when I was cursed and knew I couldn't go back, I was afraid of the Others. After Whinney came to live with me, it was worse. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid they wouldn't let me keep her, or would kill her for food. And I was afraid they wouldn't allow me to hunt. I didn't want to live with people who wouldn't let me hunt if I wanted to, or who might make me do something I didn't want to do," Ayla said.

Suddenly the recollection of her fears and anxieties filled her with discomfort and nervous energy. She got up and walked to the mouth of the cave, then pushed aside the heavy windbreak and walked out onto the top of the jutting wall that formed a broad front porch to the cave. It was cold out and clear. The stars, hard and bright, glittered out of a deep black sky with an edge as sharp as the wind. She hugged herself, and rubbed her arms as she walked toward the end of the ledge.

She started to shiver, and felt a fur being wrapped around her shoulders, and turned to face Jondalar. He enfolded her in his arms and she snuggled up close to his warmth.

He bent to kiss her, then said, "It's cold out here. Come back inside."

Ayla let him lead her in, but stopped just past the heavy hide that she had used for a windbreak since her first winter.

"This was my tent… no, this was Creb's tent," she corrected herself. "He never used it, though. It was the tent I used when I was one of the women chosen to go along with the men when they hunted, to butcher the meat and help carry it back. But it didn't belong to me. It belonged to Creb. I took it along with me when I left because I thought Creb wouldn't have minded. I couldn't ask him. He was dead, but he wouldn't have seen me if he'd been alive. I had just been cursed." Tears had begun to stream down her face, though she didn't seem to notice. "I was dead. But Durc saw me. He was too young to know he wasn't supposed to see me. Oh, Jondalar, I didn't want to leave him." She was sobbing now. "But I couldn't take him with me. I didn't know what might happen to me."

He wasn't sure what to say, or what to do, so he just held her and let her cry.

"I want to see him again. Every time I see Rydag, I think of Durc. I wish he was here with me now. I wish we both were being adopted by the Mamutoi."

"Ayla, it's late. You're tired. Come to bed," Jondalar said, leading her to the sleeping furs, but he was feeling uneasy. Such thinking was unrealistic, and he didn't want to encourage her.

She turned obediently and let him guide her. Silently, he helped her out of her clothes, then sat her down and pushed her gently back, and covered her with the furs. He added wood and banked the coals in the fireplace to last longer, then quickly undressed, and crawled into bed beside her. He put his arm around her and kissed her, gently, barely touching her lips with his.

The effect was tantalizing, and he felt her tingling response. With the same light, almost tickling touch, he began kissing her face; her cheeks, her closed eyes, and then her soft full lips again. He reached up and tilted her jaw back, and caressed her throat and her neck the same way. Ayla made herself lie still, and instead of feeling tickled, shivers of exquisite fire followed his lambent touch, and dispelled her sorrowful mood.

His fingertips traced the curve of her shoulder and brushed the length of her arm. Then, slowly, with a whisper of touch, he drew his hand back up the inside of her arm. She shook with a tingling spasm that sensitized every nerve with quickened expectation. As he followed the outline of her body down her side, his skillful hand glanced over her soft nipple. It rose up firm and ready as an intense shock of pleasure shot through her.

Jondalar couldn't resist, and bent over to take it in his mouth. She pressed up to him as he suckled and pulled and nibbled, feeling a warm wetness between her thighs as the acute sensations sent corresponding twinges deep inside. He smelled the woman-scent of her skin, and felt a drawing fullness in his loins as he sensed her readiness. He never seemed able to get enough of her, and she was always ready for him. Not once, that he could remember, had she ever turned him away. No matter what the circumstances, indoors or out, in warm furs or on cold ground, however he wanted her, she was there for him, not just acquiescing, but an active, willing partner. Only during her moon time was she a little subdued, as though she felt shy about it, and respecting her wishes, he held back.

As he reached to caress her thigh and she opened to him, he felt so strong an urge he could have taken her that instant, but he wanted it to last. They were in a warm dry place, alone, for probably the last time all winter. Not that he hesitated in the longhouse of the Mamutoi, but being alone together lent a special quality of freedom and intensity to their Pleasures. His hand encountered her moistness, then her small, erect center of Pleasure, and he heard her breath explode in gasps and cries as he rubbed and fondled it. He reached lower, and entered with two fingers and explored her depths and textures as she arched her back and moaned. Oh, how he wanted her, he thought, but not yet.

He let go of her nipple, and found her mouth, slightly open. He kissed her firmly, loving the slow sensuous touch of her tongue that found his as he reached hers. He pulled back for a moment, to exercise some control before he gave in entirely to his overpowering drive and this beautiful, willing woman he loved. He looked at her face until she opened her eyes.

In daylight, her eyes were gray-blue, the color of fine flint, but now they were dark and so full of longing and love his throat hurt with the feeling that arose from the depths of his being. He touched her cheek with the back of his forefinger, outlined her jaw, and ran it over her lips. He couldn't get enough of looking at her, of touching her, as though he wanted to etch her face into his memory. She looked up at him, at eyes so vividly blue they looked violet in firelight, and were so compelling with his love and desire, she wanted to melt into them. If she wanted to, she couldn't have refused him, and she didn't want to.

He kissed her, then moved his warm tongue down her throat and to the depression between her breasts. With both hands, he cupped their full roundness, then reached fur a nipple and suckled. She kneaded and massaged his shoulders and arms, moaning softly as waves of tingling sensation coursed through her body.

He worked his way down with his tongue and his mouth, wetted the depression of her navel with his tongue, then felt the texture of soft hair. She arched a little in invitation, and with a moist and sensitive tongue found the top of her slit, and then the small center of Pleasure. She cried out as he reached it.

Then she sat up, curled around until she found his rigid manhood, and took it into her mouth as far as she could. He gave way a little, and she tasted a spurt of warmth, while her hands reached for his soft pouches.

He felt the pressure building, the drawing from his loins, and the throbbing pulsations in his full member as he tasted of her womanness, and rediscovered her folds and ridges and her deep lovely well. He almost couldn't get enough. He wanted to touch every part of her, taste every part of her, wanted more and more of her, and felt her warmth and a pulling sensation, and both her hands moving up and down his long and full shaft. He ached to enter her.

With supreme effort, he pulled away, turned around and found the source of her womanhood again, explored her with his knowing hands. Then bent down to her node, nuzzling until her breath came in spasms and cries. She felt the surging, building of inexpressible and exquisite tension. She called for him, reached for him, and then he rose up between her thighs, and with a trembling of expectation and control, finally entered her, and exulted in her warm welcome.

He'd held back so long it took a moment to let go. He drove in again, deep, reveling in the wonder of her who could accept all his full size. With joyous abandon, he pushed in again, and out, and in, faster, surging to higher peaks, while she rose up to meet him, matching him stroke for stroke. Then with cries that rose in pitch, he felt it coming, it surged within her, and they burst forth in that final overwhelming rush of energy and pleasure, and release.

They were both too drained, too sensually spent, to move. He was sprawled on top of her, but she always loved that part, the weight of his body on her. She smelled the faint odor of herself on him, which always reminded her how loved she had just been, and why she felt so deliciously drowsy. She still felt the sheer unexpected wonder of the Pleasures. She hadn't known her body could feel such delight and joy. She had only known the degradation of being mounted out of hatred and contempt. Until Jondalar, she didn't know there was any other way.

He pulled himself up, finally, kissing a breast and nuzzling her navel as he backed off and got up. Then she got up, and headed toward the back, dropping some cooking stones in the fire.

"Will you pour some water in that cooking basket, Jondalar? I think the large waterbag is full," she said, on her way to the far corner of the cave, which she used when it was too cold to go outside to relieve herself.

When she returned, she picked the hot stones out of the fire the way she had learned from the Mamutoi, and dropped them into the water that was in a watertight basket. They hissed and steamed as their heat warmed the water. She fished them out and put them back in the fire, and added others that were hot.

When the water was simmering, she scooped out a few cupfuls, put them in a wooden basin, and from her supply of herbals, added a few dried lilaclike ceanothus flowers. A fragrant, spicy perfume filled the air, and when she dipped in a soft scrap of leather, the solution of plant saponin foamed slightly, but it would need no rinsing and leave only a pleasant scent. He watched her standing by the fire while she wiped her face and washed her body, drinking in her beauty as she moved, and wishing he could begin again.

She gave Jondalar a piece of absorbent rabbit skin and passed the basin to him. While he cleansed himself – it was a custom she developed after Jondalar arrived, which he adopted – she looked over her herbs again, pleased to have her entire supply available. She selected individual combinations for a tea for each. For herself, she started with her usual golden thread and antelope root, wondering again for a moment if she should stop taking it and see if a baby would start growing inside her. In spite of his explanations, she still believed it was a man, not spirits, that started the life growing. But whatever the cause, Iza's magic seemed to work, and her woman's curse, or rather moon time, as Jondalar called it, still came regularly. It would be nice to have a baby that came from Pleasures with Jondalar, she thought, but maybe it was best to wait. If he decides to become a Mamutoi, too, then perhaps.

She looked at thistle next for her tea, a strengthener of the heart and breath, and good for mother's milk, but she chose damiana instead, which helped keep women's cycles in balance. Then she selected red clover and rose hips for general good health and taste. For Jondalar she picked ginseng, for male balance, energy, and endurance, added yellow dock, a tonic and purifier, then licorice root, because she had noticed him frowning, which was usually a sign that he was worried or stressed about something, and to sweeten it. She put in a pinch of chamomile for nerves as well.

She straightened and rearranged the furs, and gave Jondalar his cup, the wooden one she had made that he liked so well. Then, a little chilly, they both went back to bed, finished their tea, and snuggled together.

"You smell nice, like flowers," he said, breathing in her ear, and nibbling her earlobe.

"So do you."

He kissed her, gently, then lingered, with more feeling. "The tea was good. What was in it?" he asked, kissing her neck.

"Just chamomile and some things to make you feel good, and give you strength and endurance. I don't know your names for all of them."

He kissed her then, with more heat, and she responded with warmth. He propped himself up on one elbow, and looked down at her.

"Ayla, do you have any idea how amazing you are?"

She smiled and shook her head.

"Any time, every time I want you, you are ready for me. You have never put me off or turned me away, even though the more I have you, the more I seem to want you."

"Is that amazing? That I should want you as often as you want me? You know my body better than I do, Jondalar. You have made me feel Pleasures I didn't know were there. Why should I not want you whenever you want me?"

"But for most women, there are some times when they are not in the mood, or it's just not convenient. When it's freezing cold out on the steppes, or on the damp bank of a river when the warm bed is a few steps away. But you never say no. You never say wait."

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she had a slight frown. "Jondalar, that's how I was raised. A woman of the Clan never says no. When a man gives her the signal, wherever she is, or whatever she is doing, she stops and answers his need. Any man, even if she hates him, as I hated Broud. Jondalar, you give me nothing but joy, nothing but pleasure. I love it when you want me, any time, anyplace. If you want me, there is no time I am not ready for you. I always want you. I love you."

He clutched her suddenly, and held her so tightly she could hardly breathe. "Ayla, Ayla," he cried in a hoarse whisper, his head buried in her neck, "I thought I'd never fall in love. Everyone was finding a woman to mate, setting up a hearth and a family. I was just getting older. Even Thonolan found a woman on the Journey. That's why we stayed with the Sharamudoi. I knew many women. I liked many women, but there was always something missing. I thought it was me. I thought the Mother wouldn't let me fall in love. I thought it was my punishment."

"Punishment? For what?" Ayla asked.

"For… for something that happened a long time ago."

She didn't press. That was also part of her upbringing.

15

A voice called to him, his mother's voice, but distant, wavering across a fitful wind. Jondalar was home, but home was strange; familiar, yet unfamiliar. He reached beside him. The place was empty! In a panic, he bolted up, fully awake.

Looking around, Jondalar recognized Ayla's cave. The windbreak across the entrance had come loose at one end and was flapping in the wind. Chill gusts of air were blowing into the small cave, but the sun was streaming in through the entrance and the hole above it. He quickly drew on trousers and tunic, and then noticed the steaming cup of tea near the fireplace and beside it, a fresh twig stripped of its bark.

He smiled. How did she do it? he thought. How did she always manage to have hot tea ready and waiting for him when he woke up? At least here, at her cave, she did. At the Lion Camp there was always something going on, and meals were usually shared with others. He as often took his morning drink at the Lion Hearth or the cooking hearth as the Mammoth Hearth, and then, someone else usually joined them. He didn't notice, there, whether she always had a hot drink waiting for him when he woke up, but when he thought about it, he knew she did. It was never her way to make an issue of it. It was just always there, like so many other things she did for him without his ever having to ask.

He picked up the cup and sipped. There was mint in it – she knew he liked mint in the morning – chamomile, too, and something else he couldn't quite discern. The tea had a reddish tinge, rose hips perhaps?

How easy it is to fall into old habits, he thought. He had always made a game out of trying to guess what was in her morning tea. He picked up the twig and chewed on an end as he went outside, and used the chewed end to scrub his teeth. He swished his mouth out with a drink of tea, as he walked to the far end of the ledge to pass his water. He tossed the twig and spat out the tea, then stood at the edge, musing, watching his steaming stream arc down.

The wind was not strong, and the morning sun reflecting off the light-colored rock gave an impression of warmth. He walked across the uneven surface to the jutting tip and looked down at the small river below. Ice was building up along its edges, but it still ran swiftly around the sharp bend, which shifted its generally southward direction to the east for a few miles before turning back to its southerly course. On his left, the peaceful valley stretched out alongside the river, and he noticed Whinney and Racer grazing nearby. The view upstream, on his right, was entirely different. Beyond the bone pile, at the foot of the wall, and the rocky beach, high stone walls closed in and the river flowed at the bottom of a deep gorge. He remembered swimming upstream once, as far as he could go, to the foot of a tumultuous waterfall.

He saw Ayla come into view as she ascended the steep path, and smiled. "Where have you been?"

A few more steps up and his question was answered, without her saying a word. She was carrying two fat, almost white, ptarmigan by their feathered feet. "I was standing right where you are and saw them in the meadow," she said, holding them out. "I thought fresh meat might be nice for a change. I started a fire in my cooking pit down on the beach. I'll pluck them and start them cooking after we finish breakfast. Oh, here's another firestone I found."

"Are there many on the beach?" he asked.

"Maybe not as many as before. I had to look for this."

"I think I'll go down and look for some later."

Ayla went in to finish preparing breakfast. The meal included grains cooked with red huckleberries that she had found still clinging to bushes that were bare of leaves. The birds had not left many, and she had to pick diligently to gather a few handfuls, but she was pleased to find them.

"That's what it was!" Jondalar said, as he was finishing another cup of tea. "You put red huckleberries in the tea! Mint, chamomile, and red huckleberries."

She smiled agreement, and he felt pleased with himself for solving the little puzzle.

After the morning meal, they both went down to the beach, and while Ayla prepared the birds for roasting in the stone oven, Jondalar began searching for the small nodules of iron pyrite that were scattered on the beach. He was still searching when she went back up to the cave. He also found some good-sized chunks of flint, and set them aside. By midmorning, he had accumulated a pile of the firestones, and was bored with staring at the stony beach. He walked around the jutting wall, and seeing the mare and the young horse some distance down the valley, he started toward them.

As he got closer, he noticed that they were both looking in the direction of the steppes. Several horses were at the top of the slope looking back at them. Racer took a few steps toward the wild herd, his neck arched and his nose quivering. Jondalar reacted without thinking.

"Go on! Get away from here!" he shouted, racing toward them, waving his arms.

Startled, the horses jumped back, neighing and snorting, and raced off. The last, a hay-colored stallion, charged toward the man, then reared as if in warning, before galloping after the rest.

Jondalar turned and walked back to Whinney and Racer. Both were nervous. They, too, had been startled, and they had sensed the herd's panic. He patted Whinney and put his arm around Racer's neck.

"It's all right, boy," he said to the young horse, "I didn't mean to scare you. I just didn't want them enticing you away before we had a chance to become good friends." He scratched and stroked the animal with affection. "Imagine what it would be like to ride a stallion like that yellow one," he mused aloud. "He would be difficult to ride, but then he wouldn't let me scratch him like this, either, would he? What would I have to do for you to let me ride your back and go where I want you to go? When should I begin? Should I try to ride you now, or should I wait? You're not full grown yet, but you will be soon. I'd better ask Ayla. She must know. Whinney always seems to understand her. I wonder, do you understand me at all, Racer?"

When Jondalar finally started back to the cave, Racer followed him, bumping him playfully and nuzzling his hand, which greatly pleased the man. The young horse did seem to want to be friends. Racer trailed him all the way back, and up the path into the cave.

"Ayla, do you have anything I can give Racer? Like some grain or something?" he asked as soon as he went in.

Ayla was sitting near the bed with an assortment of piles and mounds of objects arrayed around her. "Why don't you give him some of those little apples in that bowl over there? I looked over some, and those have bruises," she said.

Jondalar scooped out a handful of the small, round tart fruits, and fed them to Racer one at a time. After a few more pats, the man walked over to Ayla. He was followed by the friendly horse.

"Jondalar, push Racer out of there! He might step on something!"

He turned around and bumped into the young animal. "That's enough, now, Racer," the man said, walking back with him to the other side of the cave opening, where the young stallion and his dam customarily stayed. But when Jondalar went to leave, he was followed again. He took Racer back to his place again, but had no more luck getting him to stay. "Now that he's so friendly, how do I get him to stop?"

Ayla had been watching the antics, smiling. "You might try pouring a little water in his bowl, or putting some grain in his feeding tray."

Jondalar did both, and when the horse was finally distracted enough, walked back to Ayla, carefully watching behind him to make sure the young horse was no longer there. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"I'm trying to decide what to take with me and what to leave behind," she explained. "What do you think I should give Tulie at the adoption ceremony? It has to be something especially nice."

Jondalar looked over the piles and stacks of things Ayla had made to occupy herself during the empty nights and long cold winters she had spent alone in the cave. Even when she lived with the Clan, she had become recognized for her skill and the quality of her work, and during her years in the valley, she'd had little else to do. She gave extra time and careful attention to each project, to make it last. The results showed.

He picked up a bowl from a stack of them. It was deceptively simple. It was almost perfectly circular and had been made from a single piece of wood. The quality of the finish was so smooth it almost felt alive. She had told him how she made them. The process was essentially the same as any he knew of; the difference was the care and attention to detail. First, she gouged out the rough shape with a stone adze, then carved it closer with a hand-held flint knife. With a rounded stone and sand, she smoothed both inside and out until hardly a ripple could be felt, and gave it a final finish with scouring horsetail fern.

Her baskets, whether open weave or watertight, had the same quality of simplicity and expert craftsmanship. There was no use of dyes or colors, but textural interest had been created by changing the style of weave, and by using natural color variations of the fibers. Mats for the ground had the same characteristic. Coils of ropes and twines of sinew and bark, no matter what size, were even and uniform, as were the long thongs, cut in a spiral from a single hide.

The hides she made into leather were soft and supple, but more than anything, he was impressed with her furs. It was one thing to make buckskin pliable by scraping off the grain with the fur on the outside, as well as scraping the inside, but with the fur left on, hides were usually stiffer. Ayla's were not only luxurious on the fur side but velvety soft and yielding on the inside.

"What are you giving Nezzie?" he asked.

"Food, like those apples, and containers to hold it."

"That's a good idea. What were you thinking of giving Tulie?"

"She is very proud of Deegie's leather, so I don't think I should give her that, and I don't want to give her food like Nezzie. Nothing too practical. She's headwoman. It should be something special to wear, like amber or seashells, but I don't have anything special like that," Ayla said.

"Yes, you do."

"I thought about giving her the amber I found, but that's a sign from my totem. I can't give that away."

"I don't mean the amber. She probably has plenty of amber. Give her fur. It was the first thing she mentioned."

"But she must have many furs, too."

"No furs are as beautiful and special as yours, Ayla. Only once in my life before have I ever seen anything like them. I'm sure she never has. The one I saw was made by a flathe – by a Clan woman."

By evening, Ayla had made some hard decisions, and the accumulation of years of work was settling into two piles. The larger one was to be left behind, along with the cave and the valley. The smaller one was all she would take with her… and her memories. It was a wrenching, sometimes agonizing process that left her feeling drained. Her mood was communicated to Jondalar, who found himself thinking more of his home and his past and his life than he had for many years. His mind kept straying to painful memories he thought he'd forgotten, and wished he could. He wondered why he kept remembering now.

The evening meal was quiet. They made sporadic comments, and often lapsed into silence, each occupied with private thoughts.

"The birds are delicious, as usual," Jondalar remarked.

"Creb liked them that way."

She had mentioned that before. It was still hard to believe, sometimes, that she had learned so much from the flatheads she lived with. When he thought of it, though, why wouldn't they know how to cook as well as anyone?

"My mother is a good cook. She would probably like them, too."

Jondalar has been thinking a lot about his mother lately, Ayla thought. He said he woke up this morning dreaming about her.

"When I was growing up, she had special foods she liked to make… when she wasn't busy with the matters of the Cave."

"Matters of the Cave?"

"She was the leader of the Ninth Cave."

"You told me that, but I didn't understand. You mean she was like Tulie? A headwoman?"

"Yes, something like that. But there was no Talut, and the Ninth Cave is much bigger than the Lion Camp. Many more people." He stopped and closed his eyes in concentration. "Maybe as many as four people for every one."

Ayla tried to think about how many that would be, then decided she would work it out later with marks on the ground, but she wondered how so many people could live together all the time. It seemed to be almost enough for a Clan Gathering.

"In the Clan, no women were leaders," she said.

"Marthona became leader after Joconnan. Zelandoni told me she was so much a part of his leadership that after he died, everyone just turned to her. My brother, Joharran, was born to his hearth. He's leader now, but Marthona is still an adviser… or she was when I left."

Ayla frowned. He had spoken of them before, but she hadn't quite understood all his relationships. "Your mother was the mate of… how did you say it? Joconnan?"

"Yes."

"But you always talk of Dalanar."

"I was born to his hearth."

"So your mother was the mate of Dalanar, too."

"Yes. She was already a leader when they mated. They were very close, people still tell stories about Marthona and Dalanar, and sing sad songs about their love. Zelandoni told me they cared too much. Dalanar didn't want to share her with the Cave. He grew to hate the time she spent on leadership duties, but she felt a responsibility. Finally they severed the knot and he left. Later, Marthona made a new hearth with Willomar, and then gave birth to Thonolan and Folara. Dalanar traveled to the northeast, discovered a flint mine and met Jerika, and founded the First Cave of the Lazadonii there."

He was silent for a while. Jondalar seemed to feel a need to talk about his family, so Ayla listened even though he was repeating some things he'd said before. She got up, poured the last of the tea into their cups, added wood to the fire, then sat on the furs on the end of the bed and watched its flickering light move shadows across Jondalar's pensive face. "What does it mean, Lanzadonii?" she asked.

Jondalar smiled. "It just means… people… children of Doni… children of the Great Earth Mother who live in the northeast, to be exact."

"You lived there, didn't you? With Dalanar?"

He closed his eyes. His jaw worked as he ground his teeth and his forehead knotted with pain. Ayla had seen that expression before, and wondered. He had spoken about that period in his life during the summer, but it upset him and she knew he held back. She felt a tension in the air, a great pressure building up centered on Jondalar, like a swelling of the earth getting ready to burst forth from great depths.

"Yes, I lived there," he said, "for three years." He jumped up suddenly, knocking over his tea, and strode to the back wall of the cave. "O Mother! It was terrible!" He put his arm up to the wall and leaned his head against it, in the dark, trying to keep himself under control. Finally, he walked back, looked down at the wet spot where the liquid had seeped into the hard-packed dirt floor, and hunkered down on one knee to right the cup. He turned it over in his hands and stared at the fire.

"Was it so bad living with Dalanar?" Ayla finally asked.

"Living with Dalanar? No." He looked surprised at what she had said. "That isn't what was so bad. He was glad to see me. He welcomed me to his hearth, taught me my craft right along with Joplaya, treated me like an adult… and he never said a word about it."

"A word about what?"

Jondalar took a deep breath. "The reason I was sent there," he said, and looked down at the cup in his hand.

As the silence deepened, the breathing of the horses filled the cave, and the loud reports of the fire burning and crackling rebounded off the stone walls. Jondalar put the cup down and stood up.

"I always was big for my age, and older than my years," he began, striding the length of the cleared space around the fire, and then back again. "I matured young. I was no more than eleven years when the donii first came to me in a dream… and she had the face of Zolena."

There was her name again. The woman who had meant so much to him. He'd talked about her, but only briefly and with obvious distress. Ayla hadn't understood what caused him such anguish.

"All the young men wanted her for their donii-woman, they all wanted her to teach them. They were supposed to want her, or someone like her" – he whirled and faced Ayla – "but they weren't supposed to love her! Do you know what it means to fall in love with your donii-woman?"

Ayla shook her head.

"She is supposed to show you, teach you, help you understand the Mother's great Gift, to make you ready when it is your turn to bring a girl to womanhood. All women are supposed to be donii-women at least once, when they are older, just as all men are supposed to share a young woman's First Rites, at least once. It is a sacred duty in honor of Doni." He looked down. "But a donii-woman represents the Great Mother; you don't fall in love and want her for your mate." He looked up at her again. "Can you understand that? It's forbidden. It's like falling in love with your mother, like wanting to mate your own sister. Forgive me, Ayla. It's almost like wanting to mate a flathead woman!"

He turned and in a few long paces was at the entrance. He pushed the windbreak aside, then his shoulders slumped and he changed his mind and walked back. He sat down beside her, and looked off into the distance.

"I was twelve, and Zolena was my donii-woman, and I loved her. And she loved me. At first it was just that she seemed to know exactly how to please me, but then it was more. I could talk to her, about anything; we liked to be with each other. She taught me about women, what pleased them, and I learned well because I loved her and wanted to please her. I loved pleasing her. We didn't mean to fall in love, we didn't even tell each other, at first. Then we tried to keep it a secret. But I wanted her for my mate. I wanted to live with her. I wanted her children to be the children of my hearth."

He blinked and Ayla saw a glistening wetness at the corners of his eyes as he stared at the fire.

"Zolena kept saying I was too young, I'd get over it. Most men are at least fifteen before they seriously start looking for a woman to be a mate. I didn't feel too young. But it didn't matter what I wanted. I couldn't have her. She was my donii-woman, my counselor and teacher, and she wasn't supposed to let me fall in love with her. They blamed her more than me, but that made it worse. She wouldn't have been blamed at all if I hadn't been so stupid!" Jondalar said, spitting it out.

"Other men wanted her, too. Always. Whether she wanted them or not. One was always bothering her – Ladroman. She had been his donii-woman a few years before. I suppose I can't blame him for wanting her, but she wasn't interested in him any more. He started following us, watching us. Then one time he found us together. He threatened her, said if she didn't go with him, he'd tell everyone about us.

"She tried to laugh him off, told him to go ahead; there was nothing to tell, she was just my donii-woman. I should have done the same, but when he mocked us with words we had said in private, I got angry. No… I did not just get angry. I lost my temper and went out of control. I hit him."

Jondalar pounded his fist on the ground beside him, then again, and again. "I couldn't stop hitting him. Zolena tried to make me stop. Finally, she had to get someone else to pull me away. It's good that she did. I think I would have killed him."

Jondalar got up and began striding back and forth again. "Then it all came out. Every sordid detail. Ladroman told everything, in public… in front of everyone. I was embarrassed to find out how long he'd been watching us, and how much he had heard. Zolena and I were both questioned" – he blushed just remembering – "and both denounced, but I hated it when she was held responsible. What made it worse was that I am my mother's son. She was the leader of the Ninth Cave, and I disgraced her. The whole Cave was in an uproar."

"What did she do?" Ayla asked.

"She did what she had to do. Ladroman was badly hurt. He lost several teeth. That makes it hard to chew, and women don't like a man without teeth. Mother had to pay a large penalty for me as restitution, and when Ladroman's mother insisted, she agreed to send me away."

He stopped and closed his eyes, his forehead knotting with the pain of remembering. "I cried that night…" The admission was obviously difficult for him to make. "I didn't know where I would go. I didn't know mother had sent a runner to Dalanar to ask him to take me."

He took a breath and continued. "Zolena left before I did. She had always been drawn to the zelandonia, and she went to join Those Who Serve the Mother. I thought about Serving, too, maybe as a carver – I thought I had a little talent for carving then. But word came from Dalanar, and the next thing I knew, Willomar was taking me to the Lanzadonii. I didn't really know Dalanar. He left when I was young, and I only saw him at Summer Meetings. I didn't know what to expect, but Marthona did the right thing."

Jondalar stopped talking, and hunkered down near the fire again. Then he picked up a broken branch, dry and brittle, and added it to the flames. "Before I left, people avoided me, reviled me," he continued. "Some people took their children away when I was around so they wouldn't be exposed to my foul influence, as though looking at me might corrupt them. I know I deserved it, what we did was terrible, but I wanted to die."

Ayla waited, silently watching him. She didn't understand entirely the customs he spoke of, but she hurt for him with an empathy born of her own pain. She, too, had broken taboos and paid the harsh consequences, but she had learned from them. Perhaps because she was so different to begin with, she had learned to question whether what she had done was really so bad. She had come to understand that it wasn't wrong for her to hunt, with sling or spear or anything she wanted, just because the Clan believed it was wrong for women to hunt, and she didn't hate herself because she had stood up to Broud against all tradition.

"Jondalar," she said, aching for him as he hung his head in defeat and recrimination, "you did a terrible thing" – he nodded agreement – "when you beat that man so hard. But what did you and Zolena do that was so wrong?" Ayla asked.

He looked at her, surprised at her question. He had expected scorn, derision, the kind of contempt he felt for himself "You don't understand. Zolena was my donii-woman. We dishonored the Mother. Offended Her. It was shameful."

"What was shameful? I still don't know what you did that was so wrong."

"Ayla, when a woman assumes that aspect of the Mother, to teach a young man, she takes on an important responsibility. She is preparing him for manhood, to be the womanmaker. Doni has made it a man's responsibility to open a woman, to make her ready to accept the mingled spirits from the Great Earth Mother so the woman can become a mother. It is a sacred duty. It is not a common, everyday relationship that anyone can have at any time, not something to be taken lightly," Jondalar explained.

"Did you take it lightly?"

"No. Of course not!"

"Then what did you do wrong?"

"I profaned a sacred rite. I fell in love…"

"You fell in love. And Zolena fell in love. Why should that be wrong? Don't those feelings make you feel warm and good? You didn't plan to do it. It just happened. Isn't it natural to fall in love with a woman?"

"But not that woman," Jondalar protested. "You don't understand."

"You are right. I don't understand. Broud forced me. He was cruel and hateful, and that's what gave him pleasure. Then you taught me what Pleasures should be, not painful, but warm and good. Loving you makes me feel warm and good, too. I thought love always made you feel that way, but now you tell me it can be wrong to love someone, and it can cause great pain."

Jondalar picked up another piece of wood and put it on the fire. How could he make her understand? You could love your mother, too, but you don't want to mate her, and you don't want your donii-woman to have the children of your hearth. He didn't know what to say, but the silence was strained.

"Why did you leave Dalanar and go back?" Ayla asked, after a while.

"My mother sent for me… no, it was more than that. I wanted to return. As good as Dalanar was to me, as much as I liked Jerika, and my cousin, Joplaya, it was never quite home. I didn't know if I could ever return. I was very worried about going back, but I wanted to go. I vowed never to lose my temper, never to lose control again."

"Were you glad you went home?"

"It wasn't the same, but after the first few days, it was better than I thought it would be. Ladroman's family had left the Ninth Cave, and without him there to remind everyone, people forgot about it. I don't know what I would have done if he'd still been there. It was bad enough at Summer Meetings. Every time I saw him I'd remember the disgrace. There was a lot of talk when Zolena first returned, a little later. I was afraid to see her again, but I wanted to. I couldn't help it, Ayla, even after all that, I think I still loved her." His look pleaded for understanding.

He stood again and started pacing. "But she had changed a lot. She'd already moved up in the ranks of the zelandonia. She was very much One Who Serves the Mother. I didn't want to believe it at first. I wanted to see how much she had changed, to see if she had any feeling left for me. I wanted to be alone with her, and planned how to do it. I waited until the next festival to Honor the Mother. She must have guessed. She tried to avoid me, but then changed her mind. Some people were scandalized the next day, even though it was entirely proper to share Pleasures with her at a festival." He snorted with derision. "They needn't have bothered. She said she still cared about me, wanted the best for me, but it wasn't the same. She really didn't want me any more.

"The truth of it is," he said, with bitter irony, "I think she does care about me. We're good friends now, but Zolena knew what she wanted… and she got it. She is not Zolena now. Before I started my Journey, she became Zelandoni, First among Those Who Serve the Mother. I left with Thonolan soon afterward. I think that's why I went."

He walked to the entrance again, and stood there looking out over the top of the repaired windbreak. Ayla got up and joined him. She closed her eyes, feeling the wind on her face, and listened to Whinney's even breathing, and Racer's more nervous huffing. Jondalar took a deep breath, then went back and sat down on a mat by the fire, but he made no move to go to sleep. Ayla followed him, took down the large waterbag and poured some water into a cooking basket, then put stones in the fire to heat. He didn't seem ready for bed yet. He wasn't through.

"The best part of going back home was Thonolan," he said, picking up the thread again. "He'd grown up while I was gone, and after I got back, we became good friends and started doing all kinds of things together…"

Jondalar stopped, and his face filled with grief. Ayla remembered how hard his brother's death had been on him. He slumped down beside her, his shoulders sagging, drained and exhausted, and she realized what an ordeal it had been for him to talk about his past. She wasn't sure what had brought it on, but she knew something had been building up in him.

"Ayla, on our way back, do you think we can find… the place where Thonolan was… killed?" he said, turning to her, his eyes brimming, and his voice breaking.

"I'm not sure, but we can try." She added more stones to the water and picked out soothing herbs.

Suddenly she remembered, with all the worry and fear she'd felt then, his first night in her cave, when she wasn't sure he would live. He'd called for his brother then, and though she hadn't understood his words, she understood he was asking for the man who was dead. When she finally made him understand, he spent his great racking grief in her arms.

"That first night, do you know how long it had been since I cried?" he asked, startling her, almost as though he knew what she had been thinking, but then he'd been talking about Thonolan. "Not since then, not since my mother told me I would have to leave. Ayla, why did he have to die?" he said, with a pleading, strained voice. "Thonolan was younger than I was! He shouldn't have died so young. I couldn't bear knowing he was gone. Once I started, I couldn't seem to stop. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there, Ayla. I never told you that before. I think I was ashamed because… because I lost control again."

"There is no shame in grieving, Jondalar… or in loving."

He looked away from her. "You think not?" His voice held an edge of self-contempt. "Even when you use it for yourself, and hurt someone else?"

Ayla frowned in puzzlement.

He turned and faced the fire again. "The summer after I was back, I was selected at the Summer Meeting for First Rites. I was worried; most men are. You worry about hurting a woman, and I'm not a small man. There are always witnesses, to verify that a girl has been opened, but also to make sure that she's not really hurt. You worry that maybe you won't be able to prove your manhood and they'll have to get another man at the last moment, and you'll be shamed. Many things can happen. I have to thank Zelandoni." His laugh was caustic. "She did exactly what a donii-woman is supposed to. She counseled me… and it helped.

"But, I thought of Zolena that night, not the aspiring Zelandoni. Then I saw this scared girl and I realized she was a lot more worried than I was. She really got frightened when she saw me full; many women do, the first time. But I remembered what Zolena had taught me, how to make her ready, how to limit and control myself, how to please her. It turned out to be wonderful, to see her go from a nervous, scared girl to an open, willing woman. She was so grateful, and so loving… I felt that I loved her, that night."

He closed his eyes in that frown of pain Ayla had seen so much recently. Then he jumped up again and paced. "I never learn! I knew the next day I didn't really love her, but she loved me! She was not supposed to fall in love with me any more than I was supposed to fall in love with my donii-woman. I was supposed to make her a woman, teach her about Pleasures, not make her love me. I tried not to hurt her feelings, but I could see her disappointment when I finally made her understand."

He was striding back from the cave opening, and stopped in front of her and almost shouted at her. "Ayla, it is a sacred act, to make a girl a woman, a duty, a responsibility, and I had profaned it again!" He started walking. "That wasn't the last time. I told myself I would never do that again, but it happened the same way the next time. I told myself I would not accept the role again, I didn't deserve it. But the next time they selected me, I couldn't say no. I wanted it. They chose me often, and I began to look forward to it, to the feelings of love and warmth on that night, even though I hated myself the next day for using those young women and the Mother's sacred rite for myself."

He stopped, and clung to one of the posts of her herb drying rack, and looked down at her. "But after a couple of years, I realized something was wrong, and I knew the Mother was punishing me. The men my age were finding women, settling down, showing off the children of their hearths. But I couldn't find a woman to love that way. I knew many women, I enjoyed them for their company and their Pleasures, but I only felt love when I wasn't supposed to, at First Rites… and only on that night." He hung his head.

He looked up, startled, when he heard a gentle laugh. "Oh, Jondalar. But you fell in love. You love me, don't you? Don't you understand? You weren't being punished. You were waiting for me. I told you my totem led you to me, maybe the Mother did, too, but you had to come a long way. You had to wait. If you had fallen in love before, you would never have come. You would never have found me."

Could that be true? he wondered. He wanted to believe it. For the first time in years he felt the load that had weighed down his spirit lighten, and a look of hope crossed his face. "What about Zolena, my donii-woman?"

"I don't think it was wrong to love her, but even if it went against your customs, you were punished, Jondalar. You were sent away. That's over now. You don't have to keep reminding yourself, punishing yourself."

"But the young women, at First Rites, who…"

Ayla's expression turned hard. "Jondalar, do you know how terrible it is to be forced the first time? Do you know what it is to hate and have to endure what is not a Pleasure, but painful and ugly? Maybe you weren't supposed to fall in love with those women, but it must have been a wonderful feeling for them to be treated gently, to feel the Pleasures that you know so well how to give, and to feel loved that first time. If you gave them even a little of what you give me, then you gave them a beautiful memory to carry with them all their lives. Oh, Jondalar, you didn't hurt them. You did exactly the right thing. Why do you think you were chosen so often?"

The burden of shame and self-contempt he had carried, buried deep inside for so long, began to slip. He began to think that maybe there was a reason for his life, that the painful experiences of his childhood had some purpose. In the catharsis of confession, he saw that perhaps his actions had not been as contemptible as he thought, that perhaps he was worthwhile – and he wanted to feel worthwhile.

But the emotional baggage he had dragged around with him for so long was hard to unload. Yes, he'd finally found a woman to love, and it was true that she was everything he'd ever wanted, but what if he brought her home and she told someone that she was raised by flatheads? Or worse, that she had a mixed son? An abomination? Would he be reviled, again, along with her, for bringing such a woman? He flushed at the thought.

Was it fair to her? What if they turned her away, heaped insults on her? And what if he didn't stand by her? What if he let them do it? He shuddered. No, he thought. He wouldn't let them do such a thing to her. He loved her. But what if he did?

Why was Ayla the one he had found to love? Her explanation seemed too simple. His belief that the Great Mother was punishing him for his sacrilege could not be laid to rest so easily. Perhaps Ayla was right, maybe Doni had led him to her, but wasn't it a punishment that this beautiful woman he loved would be no more acceptable to his people than the first woman he had loved? Wasn't it ironic that this woman he had finally found was a pariah who had given birth to an abomination?

But the Mamutoi held similar beliefs and they weren't turning her away. The Lion Camp was adopting her, even knowing she had been raised by flatheads. They had even welcomed a mixed child. Maybe he shouldn't try to take her home with him. She might be happier staying. Maybe he should stay, too, let Tulie adopt him and become Mamutoi. His forehead furrowed. But he wasn't Mamutoi. He was Zelandonii. The Mamutoi were good people, and their ways were similar, but they weren't his people. What could he offer Ayla here? He had no affiliations, no family, no kin among these people. But what could he offer her if he took her home?

He was torn in so many directions, he suddenly felt exhausted. Ayla saw his face go slack, his shoulders slump.

"It's late, Jondalar. Drink a little of this, and let's go to bed," she said, handing him a cup.

He nodded, drank the warm beverage, slipped out of his clothes, and crawled into the furs. Ayla lay beside him, watching him until the furrows on his forehead eased and smoothed out, and his breath was deep and regular, but sleep for her was slower in coming. Jondalar's distress troubled her. She was glad he had told her more about himself, and his younger life. She had long believed something deep within himself caused him great anguish, and perhaps talking about it had relieved some of his discomfort, but something still bothered him. He had not told her everything, and she felt a deep uneasiness about it.

She lay awake, trying not to disturb him, wishing she could sleep. How many nights had she spent alone in this cave, unable to sleep? Then she remembered the cloak. Slipping quietly out of bed, she rummaged through her pack and pulled out a soft, old piece of leather, and held it to her cheek. It was one of the few things she had taken with her from the rubble of the clan's cave before she left. She had used it to help carry Durc when he was an infant, and to support him on her hip when he was a toddler. She didn't know why she had taken it. It had not been a necessity, yet more than once, when she was alone, she had rocked herself to sleep with it. But not since Jondalar came.

She crumpled the soft old hide into a ball, stuffed it to her stomach, and wrapped herself around it. Then, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.

"It's too much, even with the travois and carrying baskets on Whinney. I need two horses to carry all this!" Ayla said, looking over the pile of bundles and neatly tied objects she wanted to take with her. "I'll have to leave more behind, but I've been through everything so many times, I don't know what else to leave." She glanced around trying to find something that would give her an idea for a solution to her dilemma.

The cave seemed deserted. Everything useful that they weren't taking with them had been put back in the storage holes and cairns, just in case they might want to come back for it someday, though neither one believed they ever would. All that was left in view was a pile of discards. Even Ayla's herb drying rack was bare.

"You've got two horses. Too bad you can't use both of them," Jondalar said, seeing the two horses in their place near the entrance, munching on hay.

Ayla studied the horses, speculatively. Jondalar's comment had started her thinking. "I still think of him as Whinney's colt, but Racer is almost as big as she is. Maybe he could carry a small load."

Jondalar was immediately interested. "I've been wondering when he would be big enough to do some of the things Whinney does, and how you would teach him to do them. When did you first ride Whinney? And what made you think about it in the first place?"

Ayla smiled. "I was just running with her one day, wishing I could run as fast, and suddenly the idea came to me. She was a little frightened at first and started running, but she knew me. When she got tired, she stopped, and didn't seem to mind. It was wonderful! It was running like the wind!"

Jondalar watched her as she recalled her first ride, her eyes glistening and breathing hard with remembered excitement. He had felt the same way the first time Ayla had let him ride on Whinney, and he shared her excitement. He was moved by a sudden desire for her. It never ceased to amaze him how he could be so easily and unexpectedly provoked to want her. But her mind was on Racer.

"I wonder how long it would take to get him used to carrying something? I was riding Whinney before I started having her carry a load, so it didn't take her long. But if he started first with a small load, it might make it easier to get him to carry a rider later. Let's see if I can find something to practice with."

She rummaged through the discard pile pulling out skins, some baskets, extra rocks she had used to sand bowls and knap flint tools with, and the sticks she had marked to keep track of the days she had lived in the valley.

She paused for a moment, holding one stick, and put each finger of one hand over the first marks, the way Creb had shown her so long ago. She swallowed hard, thinking about Creb. Jondalar had used the marks on the sticks to confirm how long she had been there, and to help her put into his counting words the number of years of her life. She was seventeen years, then, in the beginning of summer; in late winter or spring she would add another year. He had said he was twenty years and one, and laughingly called himself an old man. He had begun his Journey three years before, the same time she had left the Clan.

She gathered everything up and headed outside, whistling for Whinney and Racer to follow. In the field, they both spent some time stroking and scratching the young stallion. Then Ayla picked up a leather hide. She let him smell it and chew on it, and rubbed him down with it. Then she draped it across his back, and let it hang. He grabbed an end with his teeth and pulled it off, then brought it to her to play some more. She put it across his back again. The next time, Jondalar put it on his back while Ayla set out a coiled long thong and busied herself with making something. They draped the hide on Racer and let him pull it off a few more times. Whinney nickered, watching with interest, and got some attention, too.

The next time Ayla put the hide across Racer's back, she dropped a long strip of leather with it, reached under him to grab the loose end, and tied the hide on with it. This time when Racer went to pull it off with his teeth, it didn't come immediately. At first, he didn't like it, and tried to buck it off, but then he found a flapping end and started tugging with his teeth until he pulled it out from under the thong. He began working the loose thong around until he found the knot, and worked at it with his teeth until he untied it. He picked the hide up with his teeth and dropped it at Ayla's feet, then went back for the thong. Both Ayla and Jondalar laughed, as Racer pranced away with his head held high, looking proud of himself.

The young horse allowed Jondalar to tie the hide on him again, and walked around with it on his back before he made a game of tugging and pulling and working it off. By then, he seemed to be losing interest. Ayla tied the hide on him again, and he let it stay while she petted and talked to him. Then she reached for the training device she had constructed, two baskets tied together so that they would hang down on both sides, with stones to add weight, and sticks jutting up like the front ends of travois poles.

She draped it across Racer's back. He flattened his ears, and turned his head back to look. He was unaccustomed to a weight on his back, but he'd been leaned across and handled so much of his life, he was used to feeling some pressure and weight. It wasn't a totally unfamiliar experience, but, most important, he trusted the woman, and so did his dam. She left the basket carrier in place while she patted and scratched and talked to him, and then she took it off along with the thong and the hide. He sniffed it again, then ignored it.

"We may have to stay an extra day or so to get him used to it, and I will still go through everything one more time, but I think it will work," Ayla said, beaming with pleasure as they walked back to the cave. "Maybe not dragging a load on poles, like Whinney does, but I think Racer could carry some things on his back."

"I just hope the weather holds a few more days," Jondalar said.

"If we don't try to ride at all, we can put a bundle of hay where we sit, Jondalar. I tied it up tight," Ayla said, calling down to the man making one last search for firestones on the rocky beach below. The horses were on the beach, too. Whinney, outfitted with packed travois and carrying baskets plus a hide-covered lumpy load on her rump, was waiting patiently. Racer was more skittish about the baskets hanging down his sides and the small load tied to his back. He was still unaccustomed to carrying any load, but the steppe horse was the original breed, a stocky, sturdy horse, used to living in the wild and exceptionally strong.

"I thought you were bringing grain for them, why do you want hay? There's more grass out there than all the horses can eat."

"But when it snows heavily or, worse, when the ice crusts on top, it's hard for them to get at it, and too much grain can make them bloat. It's good to have a few days' supply of hay on hand. Horses can die of starvation in winter."

"You wouldn't let those horses starve if you had to break through the ice and cut the grass yourself, Ayla," Jondalar said with a laugh, "but I don't care if we ride or walk." His smile faded as he looked up at the clear blue sky. "It's going to take longer to get back than it did getting here, as loaded as the horses are, either way."

Holding three more pieces of the innocuous-looking stones in his hand, Jondalar started up the steep path to the cave. When he reached the entrance, he found Ayla standing there looking in with tears in her eyes. He deposited the pyrites in a pouch near his traveling pack and then went to stand beside her.

"This was my home," she said, overcome by loss as the finality of the move struck her. "This was my own place. My totem led me here, gave me a sign." She reached for the small leather bag she wore around her neck. "I was lonely, but I did what I wanted to do here, and what I had to do. Now the Spirit of the Cave Lion wants me to leave." She looked up at the tall man beside her. "Do you think we'll ever come back?"

"No," he said. There was a hollow ring to his voice. He was looking in the small cave, but he was seeing another place and another time. "Even if you go back to the same place, it's not the same."

"Then why do you want to go back, now, Jondalar? Why not stay here, become a Mamutoi?" she asked.

"I can't stay. It's hard to explain. I know it won't be the same, but the Zelandonii are my people. I want to show them the firestones. I want to show them how to hunt with the spear-thrower. I want them to see what can be done with flint that has been heated. All these things are important and worthwhile and can bring many benefits. I want to bring them to my people." He looked down at the ground and lowered his voice. "I want them to look at me and think that I am worthwhile."

She looked into his expressive, troubled eyes, and wished she could remove the pain she saw there. "Is it so important what they think? Isn't it more important that you know you are?" she said.

Then she remembered that the Cave Lion was his totem, too, chosen by the Spirit of the powerful animal just as she had been. She knew it was not easy living with a powerful totem, the tests were difficult, but the gifts, and the knowledge that came inside, were always worth it. Creb had told her that the Great Cave Lion never chose someone who wasn't worthy.

Rather than the smaller, one-shouldered Mamutoi haversack, they settled into heavy traveling packs, similar to the type Jondalar once used, designed to be worn on the back, with straps over the shoulders. They made sure the hoods of their parkas were free to slip on or off. Ayla had added tumplines, which could be worn across the forehead for added support, if they chose, though she usually dispensed with the tumpline in favor of wearing her sling wrapped around her head. Their food, fire-making materials, tent, and sleeping furs were packed inside.

Jondalar also carried two good-sized nodules of flint carefully selected from several he had found on the beach, and a pouch full of firestones. In a separate holder attached to the side, they both carried spears and spear-throwers. Ayla carried several good throwing stones in a pouch, and under her parka, attached to a thong she had tied around her tunic, was her otter skin medicine bag.

The hay, which Ayla had bound into a round bale, was tied on the mare. She gave both horses a critical appraisal, checking their legs, their stance, their carriage to make sure they were not overloaded. With a last look up the steep path, they started out down the long valley, Whinney following Ayla, Jondalar leading Racer by a rope. They crossed over the small river near the stepping-stones. Ayla considered removing some of Whinney's load to make it easier for her to get up the graveled slope, but the sturdy mare made it with little trouble.

Once up on the western steppes, Ayla went a different way from the one they had arrived by. She took a wrong turn, then backtracked, until she found the one she was looking for. Finally, they arrived at a blind canyon strewn with huge, sharp-angled boulders, which had been sheared from crystalline granite walls by the cutting edge of frost and heat and time. Watching Whinney for signs of nervousness – the canyon had once been home to cave lions – they started in, drawn to the slope of loose gravel at the far end.

When Ayla had found them, Thonolan was already dead and Jondalar gravely injured. Except for a request to the Spirit of her Cave Lion to guide the man to the next world, she'd had no time for burial rites, but she couldn't leave the body exposed to predation. She had dragged him to the end, and using her heavy spear, fashioned after the kind used by the men of the Clan, she levered aside a rock which held back an accumulation of loose stone. She had grieved as the gravel covered the lifeless, bloody form of a man she never knew, and now, never would; a man like herself, a man of the Others.

Jondalar stood at the foot of the slope wishing there was something he could do to acknowledge this burial place of his brother. Perhaps Doni had already found him, since She called him back to Her so soon, but he knew Zelandoni would try to find this resting place of Thonolan's spirit and guide him if she could. But how could he tell her where this place was? He couldn't even have found it himself.

"Jondalar?" Ayla said. He looked at her and noticed she had a small leather pouch in her hand. "You have told me his spirit should return to Doni. I don't know the ways of the Great Earth Mother, I only know of the spirit world of the Clan totems. I asked my Cave Lion to guide him there. Maybe it is the same place, or maybe your Great Mother knows of that place, but the Cave Lion is a powerful totem and your brother is not without protection."

"Thank you, Ayla. I know you did the best you could."

"Maybe you don't understand, just as I don't understand Doni, but the Cave Lion is your totem, too, now. He chose you, as he chose me, and marked you, as he marked me."

"You told me that before. I'm not sure what it means."

"He had to choose you, when he chose you for me. Only a man with a Cave Lion totem is strong enough for a woman with a Cave Lion totem, but there is something you must know. Creb always told me, it is not easy living with a powerful totem. His Spirit will test you, to know you are worthy. It will be very hard, but you will gain more than you know." She held up the small pouch. "I made an amulet for you. You don't have to wear it around your neck, as I do, but you should keep it with you. I put a piece of red ochre in it, so it can hold a piece of your spirit and a piece of your totem, but I think your amulet should hold one more thing."

Jondalar was frowning. He didn't want to offend her, but he wasn't sure if he wanted this Clan totem amulet.

"I think you should take a piece of stone from your brother's grave. A piece of his spirit will stay with it, and you can carry it back with yours to your people."

The knots of consternation on his forehead deepened, then suddenly cleared. Of course! That might help Zelandoni find this place in a spirit trance. Maybe there was more to Clan totems than he realized. After all, didn't Doni create the spirits of all the animals?

"Ayla, how do you know exactly what to do? How could you learn so much, where you grew up? Yes, I'll keep this and put a stone from Thonolan's grave in it," he said.

He looked at the loose, sharp-edged gravel sloping against the wall in a tenuous equilibrium, created by the same forces that had split the stone slabs and blocks from the steep canyon sides. Suddenly a stone, giving way to the cosmic force of gravity, rolled down amid a spattering of other rocks and landed at Jondalar's feet. He picked it up. At first glance, it appeared to be the same as all the other innocuous little pieces of broken granite and sedimentary rock. But when he turned it over, he was surprised to see a shining opalescence where the stone had broken. Fiery red lights gleamed from the heart of the milky white stone, and shimmering streaks of blues and greens danced and sparkled in the sun as he turned it this way and that.

"Ayla, look at this," he said, showing her the small piece of opal. "You'd never guess it from the back. You'd think it was just an ordinary stone, but look here, where it broke off. The colors seem to come from deep inside, and they're so bright. It almost seems alive."

"Maybe it is, or maybe it is a piece of the spirit of your brother," she replied.

16

A cold eddy of air curled beneath the edge of the low tent; an exposed arm was quickly brought under a fur. A stiff breeze whistled through the flap across the opening; a frown of worry creased a sleeping brow. A gust caught the flap with a sharp crack and snapped it back and forth, opening the way for bellowing drafts, which brought both Ayla and Jondalar fully awake in an instant. Jondalar tied the loose end down, but the wind, increasing steadily through the night, made sleep fitful and uneasy as it gasped and groaned, heaved and howled around the small hide shelter.

In the morning, they struggled to fold the tent hide between them in the blustery wind and packed quickly, not bothering to make a fire. Instead they drank cold water from the icy stream nearby and ate traveling food. The wind abated around midmorning, but there was a tension in the atmosphere which made them doubt that the worst was over.

When the wind picked up again around noon, Ayla noticed a fresh, almost metallic scent to the air, more like an absence of smell than an actual odor. She sniffed, turning her head, testing, evaluating.

"There's snow on this wind." Ayla shouted to be heard above the roar. "I can smell it."

"What did you say?" Jondalar said, but the wind whipped his words away and Ayla understood his meaning more from the shapes his mouth took as he spoke than from hearing him. She stopped to let him come abreast.

"I can smell snow on the way. We've got to find a place to shelter before it comes," Ayla said, searching the broad, flat expanse with troubled eyes. "But where can we find shelter out here?"

Jondalar was equally worried as he scanned the empty steppes. Then he recalled the nearly frozen stream they had camped near the night before. They hadn't crossed over, it would still be on their left no matter how much it meandered. He strained to see through blowing dust, but nothing was clear. He turned left anyway.

"Let's try to find that little river," he said. "There may be trees or high banks along it that will give us some protection." Ayla nodded, following his lead. Whinney did not object either.

The subtle quality to the air that the woman had detected, and thought of as the smell of snow, had been an accurate warning. Before long, a light powdery sifting whirled and blew in an erratic pattern, defining and giving shape to the wind. It soon gave way to larger flakes that made it more difficult to see.

But when Jondalar thought he saw the outline of vague shapes looming ahead, and stopped to try to make them out, Whinney pushed on and they all followed her lead. Low-bent trees and a screen of brush marked the edge of a watercourse. The man and woman could have crouched behind it, but the mare kept going downstream until they reached a turn where the water had cut deep into a bank of hard-packed soil. There, next to the low bluff, out of the full force of the wind, Whinney urged the young horse, and stood on the outside to protect him.

Ayla and Jondalar quickly removed the horses' loads and set up their small tent almost under the mare's feet, then crawled inside to wait out the storm.

Even in the lee of the bank, out of the direct force of the wind, the storm threatened their simple shelter. The roaring gale blew from all directions at once, and seemed determined to find a way inside. It succeeded often. Drafts and gusts stole under the edges or in through cracks where the skin across the opening overlapped or the smoke-hole cover was fastened, often bringing a dusting of snow. The woman and the man crawled under their furs to keep warm, and talked. Incidents of their childhood, stories, legends, people they'd known, customs, ideas, dreams, hopes; they never seemed to run out of things to talk about. As night came on, they shared Pleasures, and then slept. Sometime in the middle of the night, the wind stopped its assault on their tent.

Ayla awoke and lay with her eyes open, looking around the dim interior, fighting down a growing panic. She didn't feel well, she had a headache, and the muffled stillness felt heavy in the stale air of the tent. Something was wrong, but she didn't know what. She sensed a familiarity about the situation, or a memory, as though she'd been there before, but not quite. It was more like a danger she ought to recognize, but what? Suddenly she couldn't bear it and sat up, pushing the warm covers off the man lying beside her.

"Jondalar! Jondalar!" She shook him, but she didn't need to. He was awake the moment she bolted up.

"Ayla! What is it?"

"I don't know. Something is wrong!"

"I don't see anything wrong," he said. He didn't, but something was obviously bothering Ayla. He wasn't used to seeing her so close to panic. She was usually so calm, so completely in control even when she was in imminent danger. No four-legged predator could bring such abject terror to her eyes. "Why do you think something is wrong?"

"I had a dream. I was in a dark place, darker than night, and I was suffocating, Jondalar. I couldn't breathe!"

A familiar look of concern spread across his face as he looked around the tent once more. It just wasn't like Ayla to be so frightened; perhaps something was wrong. It was dark in the tent, but not completely dark. A faint light filtered through. Nothing seemed out of place, the wind hadn't torn anything or snapped any cords. In fact, it wasn't even blowing. There was no movement at all. It was absolutely still.

Jondalar threw back the furs, scrambled to the entrance. He unfastened the tent flap, exposing a wall of soft white, which collapsed into the tent, but showed only more of the same beyond.

"We're buried, Jondalar! We're buried in snow!" Ayla's eyes were wide with terror and her voice cracked with the strain of trying to keep it under control.

Jondalar reached for her and held her. "It's all right, Ayla. It's all right," he murmured, not at all sure that it was.

"It's so dark and I can't breathe!"

Her voice sounded so strange, so remote, as though it came from afar, and she had become limp in his arms. He laid her down on her furs, and noticed her eyes were closed, but she still kept crying out in that eerie, distant voice that it was dark, and she couldn't breathe. Jondalar was at a loss, frightened for her, and of her, a little. Something strange was going on, something more than their snowy entombment, as frightening as that was.

He noticed his pack near the opening, partly covered with snow, and stared at it for a moment. Suddenly he crawled over to it. Brushing off the snow, he felt for the side holder and found a spear. Rising to his knees, he unfastened the smoke-hole cover that was near the middle. With the butt end of the spear he poked up through the snow. A pile plopped down on their sleeping furs, and then sunlight and a gust of fresh air swept through the small tent.

The change in Ayla was immediate. She visibly relaxed and soon opened her eyes. "What did you do?" she asked "I poked a spear through the smoke hole and broke through the snow. We'll have to dig our way out, but the snow may not be as deep as it seems." He looked at her closely with concern. "What happened to you, Ayla? You had me worried. You kept saying you couldn't breathe. I think you fainted."

"I don't know. Maybe it was the lack of fresh air."

"It didn't seem that bad. I wasn't having much trouble breathing. And you were really afraid. I don't think I've ever seen you so scared."

Ayla was uncomfortable under his questioning. She did feel strange, a little light-headed still, and seemed to recall unpleasant dreams, but she couldn't explain it.

"I remember once that snow covered up the opening of the small cave I stayed in when I had to leave Brun's clan. I woke up in the dark and the air was bad. That must have been it."

"I suppose that could make you afraid if it happened again," Jondalar said, but somehow he didn't quite believe it, and neither did Ayla.

The big red-bearded man was still outside working, though the twilight was fast fading into dark. He was the first to see the strange procession round the crest at the top of the slope and start down. First came the woman, plodding wearily through the deep snow, followed by a horse whose head was hanging with exhaustion, with a load on her back and dragging the travois behind her. The young horse, also carrying a load, was led by a rope held by the man following the mare. His way was easier going since the snow had already been trampled down by those in the lead, though Jondalar and Ayla had traded places on the way to give each other a rest.

"Nezzie! They're back!" Talut shouted as he started up to meet them, and tramped the snow down for Ayla for the last few steps of the way. He led them, not to the familiar arched entrance at the front end, but to the middle of the longhouse. To their surprise a new addition to the structure had been built in their absence. It was similar to the entrance foyer, but larger. From it, a new entrance opened directly to the Hearth of the Mammoth.

"This is for the horses, Ayla," Talut announced once they were inside, with a huge, self-satisfied grin at her expression of stunned disbelief. "I knew after that last windstorm that a lean-to would never be enough. If you, and your horses, are going to live with us, we needed to make something more substantial. I think we should call it the 'hearth of the horses'!"

Tears filled Ayla's eyes. She was tired to the bone, grateful to have finally made their way back, and she was overwhelmed. No one had ever gone to so much trouble because they wanted her. As long as she lived with the Clan, she had never felt fully accepted, never quite belonged. She was sure they would never have allowed her to keep horses, much less build a place for them.

"Oh, Talut," she said, a catch in her voice, then she reached up and put her arms around his neck and pressed her cold cheek to his. Ayla had always seemed so reserved to him, her spontaneous expression of affection was a delightful surprise. Talut hugged her and patted her back, smiling with obvious pleasure and feeling very smug.

Most of the Lion Camp crowded around them in the new annex, welcoming the woman and man as though they were both full-fledged members of the group.

"We were getting worried about you," Deegie said, "especially after it snowed."

"We'd have been back sooner if Ayla hadn't wanted to bring so much with her," Jondalar said. "The last couple of days, I wasn't sure we would make it back."

Ayla had already begun to unload the horses, for the last time, and as Jondalar went to help her the mysterious bundles aroused great curiosity.

"Did you bring anything for me?" Rugie finally asked, speaking the question that everyone was wondering.

Ayla smiled at the little girl. "Yes, I brought something for you. I brought something for everyone," she answered, making them all wonder what gift she had brought for each.

"Who is that for?" Tusie asked, when Ayla began cutting the ties on the largest bundle.

Ayla glanced up at Deegie, and they both smiled, trying not to let Deegie's little sister notice their somewhat patronizing amusement in hearing Tulie's tone and inflections in the voice of her youngest daughter.

"I even brought something for the horses," Ayla said to the little girl as she cut the last cords and the bale of hay burst open. "This is for Whinney and Racer."

After she spread it out for them, she started to untie the load on the travois. "I should bring the rest of this inside."

"You don't have to do it now," Nezzie said. "You haven't even taken off your outer clothes. Come in and have something hot to drink, and some food. Everything will be fine here for now."

"Nezzie is right," Tulie added. She was just as curious as the rest of the Camp, but Ayla's packages could wait. "You both need to rest and have something to eat. You look exhausted."

Jondalar smiled gratefully at the headwoman as he followed Ayla into the lodge.

In the morning, Ayla had many helping hands to carry in her bundles, but Mamut had quietly suggested that she keep her gifts covered until the ceremony that evening. Ayla smiled her agreement, quickly understanding the element of mystery and anticipation he implied, but her evasive replies to Tulie's hints to show her what she had brought annoyed the headwoman, though she didn't want to show it.

Once the packages and bundles were piled on one of the empty bed platforms and the drapes closed, Ayla crawled into the private, enclosed space, lit three stone lamps and spaced them for good lighting, and there examined and arranged the gifts she had brought. She made some minor changes to the choices she had made previously, adding or exchanging a few items, but when she snuffed out the lamps and emerged, letting the drapes fall closed behind her, she was satisfied.

She went out through the new opening, a space formerly occupied by a section of an unused platform bed. The floor of the new annex was higher than the floor of the earthlodge, and three wide, four-inch-high steps had been cut for easier access. She paused to look around the addition. The horses were gone. Whinney was accustomed to nosing aside a hide windbreak, and Ayla only had to show her once. Racer picked up the trick from his dam. Obeying an impulsive urge to check on them – like a mother with children, a part of her mind was always conscious of the horses – the young woman walked through the enclosed space to the mammoth tusk archway, pulled back the heavy hide drape, and looked out.

The world had lost all form and definition; solid color without shadow or shape spilled across the landscape in two hues: blue, rich, vibrant, startling blue sky unbroken by a single wisp of cloud; and white, blinding white snow reflecting a fulgent late morning sun. Ayla squinted against the glare of white; the only evidence of the storm that had raged for days. Slowly, as her eyes adjusted to the light, and a previous sense of depth and distance informed her perception, details filled in. The water, still rippling down the middle of the river, sparkled more brightly than the soft, white snow-covered banks, which blended into jagged white shards of ice, blunted by snow, at the edges of the watercourse. Nearby, mysterious white mounds took on the shapes of mammoth bones and piles of dirt.

She stepped outside a few paces to see around the bend of the river where the horses liked to graze, just out of sight. It was warm in the sun and the top of the snow glistened with a hint of melt. The horses would have to paw the deep, soft, cold layer aside to find the dried grass it covered. As Ayla prepared to whistle, Whinney, stepping into view, raised her head, and saw her. She whinnied a greeting as Racer came out from behind her. Ayla nickered back.

As the woman turned to go, she noticed Talut watching her with a peculiar, almost awed expression.

"How did the mare know you had come out?" he asked.

"I think she did not know, but horse have good nose, smell far. Good ears, hear far. Anything moves, she sees."

The big man nodded. She made it sound so simple, so logical, but still… He smiled, then, glad they were back. He was looking forward to Ayla's adoption. She had so much to offer, she would be a welcome, and valuable, Mamutoi woman.

They both went back into the new annex, and as they entered, Jondalar came in from the lodge.

"I notice your gifts are all ready," he said with a big grin as he strode toward them. He enjoyed the anticipation her mysterious packages had caused, and being in on the surprise. He had overheard Tulie voicing concern about the quality of her gifts, but he had no doubts. They would be unusual to the Mamutoi, but fine workmanship was fine workmanship, and he felt sure hers would be recognized.

"Everyone is wondering what you have brought, Ayla," Talut said. He loved the anticipation and excitement as much, or more, than anyone.

"I do not know if my gifts enough," Ayla said.

"Of course they will be enough. Don't worry about it. Whatever you brought will be enough. Just the firestones would be enough. Even without firestones, just you would be enough," Talut said, then added with a smile, "Giving us a reason to have a big celebration could be enough!"

"But, you say gifts exchanged, Talut. In Clan, for exchange, must give same kind, same worth. What can be enough to give, for you, for everyone, who make this place for horses?" Ayla said, glancing around at the annex. "Is like cave – but you make it. I do not know how people can make a cave like this."

"I've wondered that myself," Jondalar said. "I must admit, I've never seen anything like it and I've seen a lot of shelters: summer shelters, shelters built inside a cave or under an overhanging ledge, but your lodge is as solid as rock itself."

Talut laughed. "It has to be, to live here, especially in winter. As hard as the wind blows, anything less would get blown away." His smile faded, and a soft look of something akin to love suffused his face. "Mamutoi land is rich land, rich in game, in fish, in foods that grow. It is a beautiful, a strong land. I wouldn't want to live any other place…" The smile returned. "But strong shelters are needed to live here, and we don't have many caves."

"How do you make a cave, Talut? How do you make a place like this?" Ayla asked, remembering how Brun had searched for just the right cave for his clan, and how homeless she had felt until she found a valley that had a livable cave.

"If you want to know, I will tell you. It is not a big secret!" Talut said, grinning with pleasure. He was delighted with their obvious admiration. "The rest of the lodge is made the same way, more or less, but for this addition, we started by pacing off a distance from the wall outside the Mammoth Hearth. When we reached the center of an area that we thought would be large enough, a stick was put in the ground – that's where we would put a fireplace, if we decide we need a fire in here. Then we measured off a rope that same distance, fastened one end to the stick, and with the other end, marked a circle to show where the wall would go." Talut acted out his explanation, striding through the paces and tying an imaginary rope to a nonexistent stick.

"Next, we cut through the sod, lifted it out carefully, to save it, and then dug down about the length of my foot." To further clarify his remarks, Talut held up an unbelievably long, but surprisingly narrow and shapely foot encased in a snug-fitting soft shoe. "Then we marked off the width of the bench – the platform that can be beds or storage-and some extra for the wall. From the inside edge of the bench, we dug down deeper, about the depth of two or three of my feet, to excavate the middle for the floor. The dirt was piled up evenly all around the outside in a bank that helps support the wall."

"That's a lot of digging," Jondalar said, eying the enclosure. "I'd say the distance from one wall to the one opposite is, maybe, thirty of your feet, Talut."

The headman's eyes opened in surprise. "You're right! I measured it off exactly. How did you know?"

Jondalar shrugged. "Just a guess."

It was more than a guess, it was another manifestation of his instinctive understanding of the physical world. He could accurately judge distance with his eye alone, and he measured space with the dimensions of his own body. He knew the length of his stride and the width of his hand, the reach of his arm and the span of his grasp; he could estimate a fraction against the thickness of his thumb, or the height of a tree by pacing its shadow in the sun. It was not something he learned; it was a gift he was born with and developed with use. It never occurred to him to question it.

Ayla thought it was a lot of digging, too. She had dug her share of pit-traps and understood the work involved, and she was curious. "How do you dig so much, Talut?"

"How does anyone dig? We use mattocks to break up the loam, shovels to scoop it out, except for the hard-packed sod on top. We cut that out with the sharpened edge of a flat bone."

Her puzzled look made it plain she didn't understand. Perhaps she didn't know the words for the tools in his language, he thought, and stepping outside the door, returned with some implements. They all had long handles. One had a piece of mammoth rib bone attached to it, which had been ground to a sharp edge at one end. It resembled a hoe with a long curved blade. Ayla examined it carefully.

"Is like digging stick, I think," she said, looking to Talut for confirmation.

He smiled. "Yes, it's a mattock. We use pointed digging sticks, too, sometimes. They are easier to make in a hurry, but this is easier to use."

Then he showed her a shovel made from the wide palmation of a giant antler of a megaceros, split lengthwise through the spongy center, then shaped and sharpened. Antlers of young animals were used; the antlers of mature giant deer could reach eleven feet in length, and were too big. The handle was attached by means of strong cord strung through three pairs of holes bored down the center. It was used, spongy side down, not to dig, but for scooping up and throwing out the fine bess soil loosened by the mattock, or, if they chose, for snow. He also had a second shovel, more scoop-shaped, made from an outer section of ivory flaked from a mammoth tusk.

"These are shovels," Talut said, telling her the name. Ayla nodded. She had used flat pieces of bone and antler in much the same way, but her shovels had had no handles.

"I'm just glad the weather stayed nice for a while after you left," the headman continued. "As it is, we didn't dig down as far as we usually would. The ground is already hard underneath. Next year, we can dig down deeper and make some storage pits, too, maybe even a sweatbath, when we get back from the Summer Meeting."

"Weren't you going to hunt again, when the weather got nice?" Jondalar said.

"The bison hunt was very successful, and Mamut isn't having much luck Searching. All he seems to find are the few bison we missed, and it isn't worthwhile to go after them. We decided to make the addition instead, to make a place for the horses, since Ayla and her horse were such a help."

"Mattock and shovel make easier, Talut, but is work… a lot of digging," Ayla said, surprised and a little overcome.

"We had a lot of people to work at it, Ayla. Nearly everyone thought it was a good idea and wanted to help… to make you welcome."

The young woman felt a sudden rush of emotion and closed her eyes to control tears of gratitude that threatened. Jondalar and Talut saw her, and turned aside out of consideration.

Jondalar examined the walls, still intrigued with the construction. "It looks like you dug it out between the platforms, too," he commented.

"Yes, for the main supports," Talut said, pointing to the six enormous mammoth tusks, wedged in at the base with smaller bones – parts of spines and phalanges – with their tips pointing toward the center. They were spaced at regular intervals around the wall on both sides of the two pairs of mammoth tusks, which were used for the arched doorways. The strong, long, curved tusks were the primary structural members of the lodge.

As Talut of the Mammoth Hunters continued describing the construction of the semisubterranean earthlodge, Ayla and Jondalar became even more impressed. It was far more complex than either had imagined. Midway between the center and the tusk wall supports were six wooden posts – tapering trees, stripped of bark and crotched on top. Around the outside of the annex, braced against the bottom of the bank, mammoth skulls stood upright in the ground, supported by shoulder blades, hipbones, spinal bones, and several strategically placed long bones, legs and ribs. The upper part of the wall, consisting mainly of shoulder blades, hipbones, and smaller tusks of mammoth, merged into the roof, which was supported by wooden beams stretched across and between the outer circle of tusks and the inner circle of posts. The mosaic of bones, all deliberately chosen and some trimmed to shape, were wedged in and lashed to the sturdy tusks, creating a curved wall that fit together like interlocking pieces of a puzzle.

Some wood was available from river valleys, but for building purposes mammoth bones were in greater supply. But the mammoths they hunted contributed only a small portion of the bones they used. The great majority of their building materials were selected from the prodigious pile of bones at the bend in the river. Some bones even came from scavenger-stripped carcasses found on the nearby steppes, but the open grasslands were more important for providing materials of another variety.

Each year the migratory herds of reindeer dropped their antlers to make way for the next year's rack, and each year they were gathered up. To complete the dwelling, the antlers of the reindeer were bound to one another to make a strong framework of interlaced supports for a domed roof, leaving a hole in the center for smoke to escape. Then, willow boughs from the river valley were tied together into a thick mat, which was laid across and bound securely over and around the antlers, and tapered down the bone wall, to create a sturdy base over the roof and the wall. Next, an even thicker thatch of grass, overlapped to shed water, was fastened to the willows all the way to the ground. On top of the grass thatch was a layer of dense sod. Part of the sod came from the ground that had been excavated for the addition, and part from land nearby.

The walls of the entire structure were two to three feet thick, but one final layer of material remained to complete the annex.

They were standing outside admiring the new structure when Talut finished his detailed explanation of earthlodge construction. "I was hoping the weather would clear," he said, making an expansive gesture toward the clear blue sky. "We need to finish it. Without finishing, I'm not sure how long this will last."

"How long will a lodge last?" Jondalar asked.

"As long as I live, sometimes more. But earthlodges are winter homes. We usually leave in summer, for the Summer Meeting and the big mammoth hunt, and other trips. Summer is for traveling, to gather plants, to hunt or fish, to trade or visit. We leave most of our things here when we go, because we come back every year. The Lion Camp is our home."

"If you expect this part to be home to Ayla's horses for very long, then we better finish it while we have the chance," Nezzie interjected. She and Deegie set down the large, heavy skin of water they had hauled up from the partially frozen river.

Ranec arrived then, carrying digging tools and dragging a large basket full of compact wet soil. "I've never heard of anyone making a lodge, or even part of one, this late in the season," he said.

Barzec was right behind him. "It will be an interesting test," he said, setting down a second basket of slick mud, which they had dug from a particular place along the riverbank. Danug and Druwez appeared then, each carrying additional baskets of the wet mud.

"Tronie has a fire started," Tulie said, picking up the heavy skin of water brought up by Nezzie and Deegie, by herself. "Tornec and some others are piling up snow to melt, once we get this water heating."

"I like to help," Ayla said, wondering how much help she would be. Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do, but she didn't have any idea what was going on, much less what she could do to help.

"Yes, can we help?" Jondalar added.

"Of course, it's for the horse," Deegie commented, "but let me get you something old of mine to wear, Ayla. It's a messy job. Does Talut or Danug have something for Jondalar?"

"I'll find something for him," Nezzie said.

"If you are still so eager after we are through, you can come and help put up the new lodge Tarneg and I will be making to start our Camp… after I join with Branag," Deegie added, smiling.

"Has anyone started fires in the sweatbaths?" Talut asked. "Everyone will want to clean up after this, especially if we're going to have a celebration tonight."

"Wymez and Frebec started them early this morning. They are getting more water now, Nezzie said. "Crozie and Manuv have gone off with Latie and the young ones to get fresh pine boughs to make the baths smell nice. Fralie wanted to go, too, but I didn't like the idea of her climbing up and down hills, so I asked her if she would watch Rydag. She's watching Hartal, too. Mamut is busy doing something for the ceremony tonight, too. I have a feeling he's planning some kind of a surprise.

"Oh… Mamut asked me, when I was coming out, to tell you that the signs are good for a hunt in a few days, Talut. He wants to know if you want him to Search," Barzec said.

"The signs are good for a hunt," the big headman said. "Look at this snow! Soft underneath, melting on top. If we get a good freeze, it will have a crust of ice, and animals always get stuck when the snow is in that condition. Yes, I think it would be a good idea."

Everyone had been walking toward the fireplace, where a large hide, filled with the icy water from the river, had been propped over a frame directly over the flames. The river water was only to start the process of melting the snow that was dumped in. As it melted, baskets of water were dipped out and poured into another large, stained, and dirty hide that lined a depression in the ground. The special soil, taken from a bank near the river, was added and mixed with the water to form a thick slurry of gummy, slick clay.

Several people climbed on top of the new sod-covered annex with waterproof baskets of the fine, smooth, runny mud, and, with scoops, began pouring it down the sides. Ayla and Jondalar watched, and soon joined them. Others at the bottom spread it around to make sure that the entire surface had a thick coat.

The tough, sticky clay, washed and sorted into fine particles by the river, would absorb no water. It was impervious to water. Rain, sleet, melting snow, nothing could penetrate. Even when wet, it was waterproof. As it dried, and with long use, the surface became quite hard, and was often used as a handy place to store objects and implements. When the weather was pleasant, it was a place to lounge, to visit, to expound in loud discussion, or to sit quietly and meditate. Children climbed up when visitors came, to watch without being in the way, and everyone used the perch when an audience was needed or there was something to see.

More clay was mixed and Ayla carried a heavy basket up, slopping it over the edge, and spilling it on herself. It didn't matter. She was already covered with mud, just as everyone else was. Deegie was right. It was a messy job! As they finished the sides, they moved away from the edge and began coating the top, but as the surface of the dome became covered with wet slippery mud, footing became treacherous.

Ayla poured out the last of the mud from her basket, and watched it oozing slowly down. She turned to go, not watching carefully where she was stepping. Before she knew it, her feet slipped out from under her. She fell with a plop into the fresh, soft clay she had just poured, and went slipping and sliding over the rounded edge of the roof and down the side of the horse annex, letting out an involuntary scream.

The next instant she found herself caught by strong arms just as she reached the ground, and startled, looked at the mud-spattered, laughing face of Ranec.

"That's one way to spread it down the side," he said, steadying her, while she regained her composure. Then, still holding her, he added, "If you want to do it again, I'll wait here for you."

She felt warmth where he touched the cool skin of her arm, and she was entirely aware of his body pressing against her. His dark eyes, glistening and deep, were filled with a yearning that stirred an unbidden response from the core of her womanness. She trembled slightly, and felt her face flush before she looked down, and then moved away from his touch.

Ayla glanced at Jondalar, confirming what she expected to see. He was angry. His fists were clenched and his temples throbbed. She looked away quickly. She understood his anger a little more now, realizing it was an expression of his fear – fear of loss, fear of rejection – but she felt a touch of irritation at his reaction, nonetheless. She couldn't help it that she slipped, and she was grateful that Ranec happened to be there to catch her. She flushed again, recalling her response to his lingering touch. She couldn't help that either.

"Come on, Ayla," Deegie said. "Talut says it's enough and the sweatbaths are hot. Let's go clean this mud off and get ready for the celebration. It's for you."

The two young women walked into the earthlodge through the new annex. As they reached the Mammoth Hearth, Ayla suddenly turned to the other young woman. "Deegie, what is sweatbath?"

"Haven't you ever taken a sweatbath?"

"No." Ayla shook her head.

"Oh, you'll love it! You might as well take those muddy clothes off at the Aurochs Hearth. The women usually use the back sweatbath. The men like this one." As she spoke, Deegie indicated an archway just beyond Manuv's bed as they passed through the Reindeer Hearth and into the Crane Hearth.

"Is not for storage?"

"Did you think all the side rooms were for storage? I suppose you wouldn't know, would you? You feel so much a part of us already, it's hard to remember that you really haven't been here that long." She stopped then, and turned to look at Ayla. "I'm glad you will be one of us, I think you were meant to be."

Ayla smiled shyly. "I am glad, too, and I am glad you are here, Deegie. Is nice to know woman… young… like me."

Deegie smiled back. "I know. I just wish you had come sooner. I am going to be leaving after the summer. I almost hate to go. I want to be headwoman of my own Camp, like my mother, but I'm going to miss her, and you, and everyone."

"How far away you go?"

"I don't know. We haven't decided yet," Deegie said.

"Why go far? Why not build new lodge nearby?" Ayla asked.

"I don't know. Most people don't, but I guess I could. I didn't think of that," Deegie said, with a look of quizzical surprise. Then, as they reached the last hearth in the earthlodge, she added, "Take off those dirty things and just leave them in a pile there."

Both Deegie and Ayla peeled off their muddy garments. Ayla could feel the warmth radiating from behind a drape of red leather suspended from a rather low mammoth tusk archway in the farthest back wall of the structure. Deegie ducked down and went in first. Ayla followed, but stopped a moment before entering with the drape held aside, trying to see in.

"Hurry in and close it! You're letting the heat out!" a voice called from the steamy, dimly lit, somewhat smoky interior.

She quickly scuttled in, letting the drape fall in place behind her, but, rather than cold, she felt the heat assault her. Deegie led her down a rough stairway made of mammoth bones placed up against the dirt wall of a pit that was about three feet deep. Ayla stood at the bottom on a floor that was covered with a soft, deep-piled fur of some kind waiting for her eyes to adjust, then looked around. The space that had been excavated was about six feet wide and ten feet long. It consisted of two circular sections joined together, each with a low domed ceiling – from where she stood, only three or four inches above her head.

Hot bone coals scattered across the floor of the larger section glowed brightly. The two young women walked through the smaller section to join the others, and Ayla saw that the walls were covered with skins, and the floor of the larger space was covered with mammoth bones spaced carefully apart. It gave them a place to walk above the bits of burning coals. Later, when they poured water on the floor to make steam, or to wash, it would drain into the dirt below the bones, which would keep feet above the mud.

More coals were piled up in the fireplace at the center. They furnished both heat and the only source of light, except for a faint outline of daylight around the covered smoke hole. Naked women sat around the fireplace on makeshift benches made of flat bones stretched across other mammoth bone supports. Containers of water were lined up along one wall. Large, sturdy, tightly woven baskets held cold water, while steam issued from the stomachs of large animals supported by frames of antlers. Someone picked a red-hot stone out of the fireplace with two flat bones and dropped it into one of the water-filled stomachs. A cloud of pine-scented steam rose and enveloped the room.

"Here, you can sit between Tulie and me," Nezzie said, moving her ample body over one way, making room. Tulie moved the other way. She was a big woman, too, but most of her size was sheer muscular mass, though her full female shape left no doubt about her gender.

"I want to wash some of the mud off first," Deegie said. "Probably Ayla will, too. Did you see her slide down the side?"

"No. Did you hurt yourself, Ayla?" Fralie asked, looking concerned, and slightly uncomfortable with her advancing pregnancy.

Deegie laughed before Ayla could answer. "Ranec caught her, and didn't look at all unhappy about it, either." There were smiles and nods.

Deegie picked up a mammoth skull basin, dipped both hot and cold water into it, accidentally picking up a twig of pine from the hot water, and from a dark mound of some soft substance, pulled off a handful for Ayla and one for herself.

"What is this?" Ayla asked, feeling the luxuriously soft and silky texture of the material.

"Mammoth wool," Deegie said. "The undercoat they grow in winter. They shed it in big bunches every spring, right through the long outer hair. It gets caught on bushes and trees. Sometimes you can pick it up off the ground. Dip it in the water and use it to wash off the mud."

"Hair muddy, too," Ayla said, "should wash."

"We'll wash up good later, after we sweat awhile."

They rinsed off to billows of steam, then Ayla sat down between Deegie and Nezzie. Deegie leaned back and closed her eyes, sighing contentedly, but Ayla, wondering why they were all sitting together sweating, observed everyone in the room. Latie, sitting on the other side of Tulie, smiled at her. She smiled back.

There was a movement at the entrance. Ayla felt a cool breeze and realized how hot she was. Everyone looked to see who was coming. Rugie and Tusie clambered down, followed by Tronie holding Nuvie.

"I had to nurse Hartal," Tronie announced. "Tornec wanted to take him for a sweatbath, and I didn't want him fussing."

Were men not allowed here, not even male babies? Ayla wondered.

"Are all the men in the sweatbath, Tronie? Maybe I should get Rydag," Nezzie said.

"Danug took him in. I think the men decided they wanted all the males this time," Tronie said. "Even the children."

"Frebec took Tasher and Crisavec," Tusie mentioned.

"It's about time he started taking more interest in those boys," Crozie grumbled. "Isn't that the only reason you joined with him, Fralie?"

"No, Mother. That's not the only reason."

Ayla was surprised. She'd never heard Fralie disagree with her mother before, even mildly. No one else seemed to notice. Maybe in here, with only the women, Fralie didn't have to worry about seeming to take sides. Crozie was sitting back with her eyes closed; it was amazing how much her daughter resembled her. In fact, she resembled her too much. Except for a stomach big with pregnancy, Fralie was so thin she looked almost as old as her mother, Ayla noticed. Her ankles were swollen. That was not a good sign. She wished she could examine her, then realized she might be able to, in here.

"Fralie, ankles swell much?" Ayla asked, somewhat hesitantly. Everyone sat up, waiting for Fralie's reply, as though they all suddenly realized what had just occurred to Ayla. Even Crozie watched her daughter without saying a word.

Fralie looked down at her feet, seeming to examine her swollen ankles, considering. Then she looked up. "Yes. They've been swollen lately," she said.

Nezzie breathed an audible sigh of relief, which everyone else felt.

"Still sick in morning?" Ayla asked, leaning forward.

"I wasn't sick this long with the first two."

"Fralie, will let me… look at you?"

Fralie looked around at the women. No one said a word. Nezzie smiled, and nodded at her, silently urging her to agree.

"All right," Fralie said.

Ayla quickly got up, looked at her eyes, smelled her breath, felt her forehead. It was too dark to see much, and it was too hot in the sweatbath to judge fever. "Will lie down?" Ayla asked.

Everyone moved out of the way to make a place for Fralie to stretch out. Ayla felt, and listened, and examined with thoroughness and obvious knowledge, while everyone else watched with curiosity.

"Sick more than morning, I think," Ayla said, when she was through. "I fix something, help make food not come up. Help feel better. Help swelling. Will take?"

"I don't know," Fralie said. "Frebec watches everything I eat. I think he's worried about me, but he won't admit to it. He'll ask where it came from."

Crozie was sitting, tight-lipped, obviously biting back words she wanted to say, fearing if she said them, Fralie might take Frebec's side and refuse Ayla's help. Nezzie and Tulie exchanged glances. It wasn't like Crozie to exercise so much self-restraint.

Ayla nodded. "I think I know way," she said.

"I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready to clean up and go out," Deegie said. "How would a quick plunge in the snow feel right now, Ayla?"

"I think good. I am hot."

17

Jondalar opened the drape that hung closed in front of the bed platform he shared with Ayla, and smiled. She was sitting cross-legged in the middle, naked, her skin pink and glowing, brushing her wet hair.

"I feel so good," she said, smiling back. "Deegie said I would love it. Did you like the sweatbath?"

He climbed in beside her, letting the drape fall. His skin was pink and glowing, too, but he had finished dressing and had just combed his hair and tied it in a club at the back of his neck. The sweatbath had felt so refreshing he had even considered shaving, but just trimmed his beard instead.

"I always enjoy them," he said. Then he couldn't resist. He took her in his arms, kissed her, and began caressing her warm body. She responded willingly, giving herself up to his embrace, and he heard a soft moan when he bent to take a nipple in his mouth.

"Great Mother, woman, you are tempting," he said as he pulled back. "But what will people say when they start arriving at the Mammoth Hearth for your adoption, and find us sharing Pleasures instead of being dressed and ready?"

"We could tell them to come back later," she answered with a smile.

Jondalar laughed out loud. "I believe you would, wouldn't you?"

"Well, you gave me your signal, didn't you?" she said with a mischievous grin.

"My signal?"

"You remember. The signal a man gives a woman when he wants her? You said I'd always know, then you kissed me and touched me like that. Well, you just gave me your signal, and when a man gives her the signal, a woman of the Clan never refuses."

"Is it really true she never refuses?" he asked, still not quite able to believe it.

"That's what she is taught, Jondalar. That's how a proper woman of the Clan behaves," she answered, with a perfectly matter-of-fact seriousness.

"Hmmm, you mean the choice is mine? If I said let's stay here and share Pleasures, you'd make everyone wait?" He was trying to be serious, but his eyes twinkled with delight at what he considered their private joke.

"Only if you give me the signal," she replied, in the same vein.

He took her in his arms and kissed her again, and feeling her warm skin and warmer response, he was almost tempted to find out if she was joking or if she really meant it but, reluctantly, he let her go.

"It's not what I'd rather do, but I think I'd better let you get dressed. People will be here before long. What are you going to wear?"

"I don't really have anything, except some Clan wraps, and the outfit I've been wearing, and an extra pair of leggings. I wish I did. Deegie showed me what she's going to wear. It's so beautiful – I've never seen anything like it. She gave me one of her brushes, after I started to brush my hair with teasel," Ayla said, showing Jondalar the stiff mammoth-hair brush, tightly wrapped around one end with rawhide to form the handle, giving it the shape of a wide, tapering paint brush. "She gave me some strings of beads and shells, too. I think I'll wear them in my hair, like she does."

"I'd better let you finish getting ready," Jondalar said, opening the drape to leave. He leaned over to kiss her again, then got up. After the leather drape closed, he stood looking at it for a moment, and a frown creased his brow. He wished he could have stayed with her and not had to worry about other people. When they were in her valley they could do what they wanted whenever they wanted to. And she wouldn't be getting ready to be adopted by people who lived so far from his home. What if she wanted to stay here? He had a sinking feeling that after this night, nothing would ever be the same.

As he turned to go, Mamut caught his eye, and beckoned him. The tall young man walked toward the tall old shaman.

"If you are not busy, I could use your help," Mamut said.

"I'd be glad to help. What can I do?" Jondalar asked.

From the back of a storage platform, Mamut showed him four long poles. On close inspection, Jondalar realized they were not wood, but solid ivory; curved mammoth tusks that had been shaped and straightened. Then the old man gave him a large, hailed, stone maul. Jondalar stopped to examine the heavy hammerlike tool since he had not seen one quite like it before. It was completely covered with hide. He could feel that a circular groove had been nicked around the large stone, and a flexible willow withe wrapped around the groove, then bound to a bone handle. The entire maul had then been wrapped with wet, unprocessed hide, which had only been scraped clean. The rawhide shrunk tight as it dried, encasing both stone maul and handle in hard, tough leather, thus holding them firmly together.

The shaman led him toward the firepit, and lifting up a grass mat, Mamut showed him a hole, about six inches across, that was filled with small stones and pieces of bone. They removed them, then Jondalar brought one of the ivory poles and dropped the end in the hole. While Mamut held it straight, Jondalar wedged the stones and bones around the pole, tamping them down firmly with a stone maul. When the post was firmly embedded, they put another post in, and then another, in an arc around, but somewhat away from, the fireplace.

Then the old man brought out a package and carefully, with reverence, unwrapped it and withdrew a neatly rolled sheet of thin membranous material of a parchmentlike quality. When it was opened, Jondalar saw that several animal figures – a mammoth, birds, and a cave lion among them – and strange geometric designs had been painted on it. They fastened it around the upright ivory poles creating a translucent painted screen set back from the hearth. Jondalar retreated a few steps to absorb the overall effect, then he looked closer, curious. Intestines, after they were cut open, cleaned, and dried, were usually translucent, but this screen was made of something else. He thought he knew what the material was, but he wasn't sure.

"That isn't made of intestines, is it? They would have had to be sewn together, and that is all one piece." The Mamut nodded agreement. "Then it has to be the membrane layer from the inner side of the hide of a very big animal, somehow removed in one piece."

The old man smiled. "A mammoth," he said. "A white female mammoth."

Jondalar's eyes opened wide, and he looked again at the screen with awe.

"Each Camp received a part of the white mammoth, since she gave up her spirit during the first hunt of a Summer Meeting. Most Camps wanted something white. I asked for this; we call it the shadow skin. It has less substance than any of the white pieces, and it cannot be displayed for all to see its obvious power, but I believe that which is subtle can be more powerful. This is more than a small piece; this encircled the inner spirit of the whole."

Brinan and Crisavec suddenly burst into the space in the middle of the Mammoth Hearth, running down the passageway from the Aurochs and Crane hearths, chasing each other. They tumbled together in a heap, wrestling, and almost ran into the delicate screen, but stopped when Brinan noticed the thin shank of a long leg barring their way. They looked up, directly at the drawing of the mammoth, and both gasped. Then they looked at Mamut. To Jondalar, the shaman's face showed no expression, but when the seven-and eight-year-old boys turned their gaze on the old shaman, they quickly got up, and carefully sidestepping the screen, walked toward the first hearth as though they had been severely scolded.

"They looked contrite, almost scared, but you didn't say a word and they've never been frightened of you before," Jondalar said.

"They saw the screen. Sometimes, when you look upon the essence of a powerful spirit, you see your own heart."

Jondalar smiled and nodded, but he wasn't sure he understood what the old shaman meant. He's talking like a zelandoni, the young man thought, talking with a shadow on his tongue, like those of his calling so often did. Still, he wasn't sure if he wanted to see his own heart.

As the boys walked through the Hearth of the Fox, they nodded at the carver, who smiled back. Ranec's smile grew bigger when he turned his attention back to the Mammoth Hearth, which he had been observing for some time. Ayla had just appeared, and was standing in front of the drape tugging on her tunic to straighten it. Though it didn't show under his dark skin, his face flushed at the sight of her. He felt his heart pound and a tension in his loins.

The more he saw her, the more exquisite she was. The long rays of the sun, streaming in through the smoke hole, directed its shimmering light on her on purpose, or so it seemed to him. He wanted to remember that moment, to fill his eyes with the sight of her. He thought of her in ardent hyperbole. Her rich, luxuriant hair falling in soft waves around her face, was like a golden cloud playing with sunbeams; her unself-conscious movements embodied ultimate grace. No one knew the anxiety he had suffered while she was gone, or the happiness he felt that she was becoming one of them. He frowned when Jondalar saw her, walked toward her and put an arm around her possessively, then stood between them, blocking his view.

They walked together toward him on their way to the first hearth. She stopped to look at the screen, with obvious awe and admiration. Jondalar fell in behind her as they came to the passageway through the Fox Hearth. Ranec saw Ayla flush with warm feeling when she saw him, before she looked down. The tall man's face flushed red when he saw Ranec, too, but the look in his eye made it clear that there was no pleasure in his emotion. Each man tried to stare the other down as they passed by – Jondalar's hard anger and jealousy apparent, Ranec trying very hard to seem self-confident and cynical. Ranec's eyes automatically went next to the steady stare of the man behind Jondalar, the man who was the essence of spirituality to the Camp, and for some reason he felt a little abashed.

They approached the first hearth, and went out through the entrance foyer. Ayla began to understand why she had not noticed hectic preparations for a feast. Nezzie was supervising the removal of wilted leaves and steaming grass from a roasting hole in the ground, and the smells that arose from the cooking pit made everyone's mouth water. Preparations had begun before they went to get clay from the river, and the food had been cooking all the while they worked. Now, it only needed to be served to the Camp of hungry people.

A certain variety of round, hard starchy roots that took well to long cooking came out first, followed by baskets of a mixture of bone marrow, blue bearberries, and a variety of cracked and ground seeds – pigweed, a mixture of grains, and oily pignon seeds. The result, after hours of steaming, had a heavy, puddinglike consistency that retained the shape of the basket after it was removed, and while not sweet, though the berries gave it a light fruit flavor, was deliciously rich. A full haunch of mammoth meat was brought out next, self-basted by the steam and the thick edge of fat, and falling apart with tenderness.

The sun was setting and a sharp wind hurried everyone back inside the lodge, carrying the food with them. This time, when Ayla was asked to select first, she wasn't as shy. This feast was in her honor, and though being the center of attention was still not easy for her, she was happy for the reason.

Deegie came to sit with her, and Ayla caught herself staring. Deegie's thick reddish-brown hair was pulled back from her face and wrapped into a coil that was piled high on her head. A string of round ivory beads, each one carved and pierced by hand, had been coiled in with her hair and stood out as contrasting highlights. She wore a long, loose dress of pliable leather – Ayla thought of it as a long tunic – that draped in soft folds from the belted waist, dyed deep brown with a rather shiny, burnished finish. It was sleeveless, but wide at the shoulders, giving the appearance of short sleeves. A fringe of long, reddish-brown mammoth hair fell from her shoulders in back and from a V-shaped yoke in front, and hung to just below her waist.

The neckline was outlined by a triple row of ivory beads, and around her neck she wore a necklace of conical seashells, spaced by cylindrical lime tubes and pieces of amber. Around her right upper arm was an ivory armband incised with an alternating chevron pattern. The pattern was repeated in colors of ochre reds, yellows, and browns in the belt, which was woven of animal hair, some of it dyed. Attached to the belt by a loop was an ivory-handled flint knife in a rawhide sheath, and suspended from another loop, the lower section of a hollow black aurochs horn, a drinking cup that was a talisman of the Aurochs Hearth.

The skirt had been cut on the diagonal, starting at the sides above the knee, to a point both in front and back. Three rows of ivory beads, a strip of rabbit fur, and a second strip of fur that had been pieced together from the striped backs of several ground squirrels accented the diagonal hemline, and hanging from it was another fringe of the long outer guard hairs of the woolly mammoth, reaching to her lower calf. She was not wearing leggings, and her legs showed through the fringe, as well as dark brown high boots, moccasinlike at the feet, burnished to a waterproof shine.

Ayla found herself wondering how they made leather shine. All of her hides and pelts had the soft natural texture of buckskin. But mostly she just stared at Deegie in awe, and thought she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.

"Deegie, that is beautiful… tunic?"

"You could call it a long tunic. It's really a summer dress. I made it for the Meeting last year, when Branag first declared for me. I changed my mind about the outfit I was going to wear. I knew we'd be inside, and with all the celebrating, it will get warm."

Jondalar came to join them, and it was obvious that he thought Deegie was quite attractive, too. When he smiled at her, the charisma that made him irresistibly appealing not only communicated his feeling but somehow intensified it, and provoked the invariable response. Deegie smiled warmly and invitingly at the tall handsome man with the intense blue eyes.

Talut approached them with a huge platter of food in his hand. Ayla gaped, staring. He wore a fantastic hat that stood so high on his head it brushed the ceiling. It was constructed of leather dyed in various colors, several different kinds of fur, including a long, bushy squirrel tail hanging down his back, and the front ends of two relatively small mammoth tusks jutting straight up from both sides of his head, and joined together at the tips like the entrance archways. His tunic, which fell to his knees, was a deep maroon – at least the parts of it she could see were maroon. The front of it was so richly decorated with a complex pattern of ivory beads, animal teeth, and various shells, it was difficult to see the leather.

In addition, around his neck was a heavy necklace of cave lion claws and a canine tooth, interspersed with amber, and suspended from it down his chest was an ivory plaque incised with enigmatic marks. A wide black leather belt, worn low, circled his waist and fastened in front with ties that hung down in tassels. Hanging from it by loops was a dagger, made by sharpening the tip of a mammoth tusk, and crosshatching the grip for better purchase, a rawhide sheath with an ivory-handled flint knife, and a round, wheel-shaped object with spokelike divisions from which were suspended, by thongs, a pouch, some canine teeth, and most prominent, the brushy tip of a cave lion tail. A fringe of long mammoth hair that nearly swept the ground, revealed when he moved that his leggings were as ornamented as his tunic.

His shiny black footwear was particularly interesting, not for its decoration, because it had none, but for its lack of any visible seam. It appeared to be a single piece of soft leather shaped exactly like his foot. It was one more of several puzzles Ayla wanted to find answers to, later.

"Jondalar! I see you've found the two most beautiful women here!" Talut said.

"You're right," Jondalar said, smiling.

"I wouldn't hesitate to wager that these two could hold their own in any company," Talut continued. "You've traveled, what would you say?"

"I wouldn't argue with that. I've seen many women, but nowhere have I seen any more beautiful than right here," Jondalar said, looking directly at Ayla. Then he smiled at Deegie.

Deegie laughed. She enjoyed the byplay, but there was no doubt where Jondalar's heart lay. And Talut always paid her extravagant compliments; she was his acknowledged offspring and heir, the daughter of his sister, who was the daughter of his mother. He loved the children of his hearth and provided for them, but they were Nezzie's, and the heirs of Wymez, her brother. She had adopted Ranec, as well, since his mother was dead, which made him both the child of Wymez's hearth and his legitimate offspring and heir, but that was an exception.

All the people of the Camp welcomed the opportunity to show off their finery, and Ayla kept trying to avoid staring at one or another. Their tunics were of various lengths, with and without sleeves, and in a variety of colors, with individual decorations. The men's tended to be shorter, more heavily decorated, and they usually wore headwear of some kind. Women generally favored the V-shaped hemline, though Tulie's was more like a belted shirt worn over leggings. It was covered, in intricate and artistic designs, with beads, shells, teeth, carved ivory and, particularly, heavy pieces of amber. Though she didn't wear a hat, her hair was so elaborately arranged and decorated, she might as well have been wearing one.

But, of all, Crozie's tunic was the most unusual. Instead of coming to a point in front, it was diagonally cut all the way across the front, with a rounded point on her right side, and a rounded cutout on her left. Most stunning, though, was its color. It was white, not off-white or ivory, but true white, and fringed and decorated with, among other things, the white feathers of the large northern crane.

Even the children were dressed for a ceremony. When Ayla saw Latie standing at the edge of the group that was milling around her and Deegie, she asked Latie to come and show her outfit, in effect inviting her to join them. Latie commented on the way Ayla was wearing the beads and shells Deegie had given her, and thought she'd try them that way. Ayla smiled. She hadn't been able to think of a way to wear them, and finally just twisted them together and wrapped them around her head, across her forehead, the way she carried her sling. Latie was quickly included in the general banter, and smiled shyly when Wymez told her she looked nice – an extravagant compliment from the laconic man. Once Latie joined them, Rydag was quick to follow. Ayla held him on her lap. His tunic was modeled after Talut's, but much less ornamented. He couldn't have begun to carry the weight. Talut's ceremonial outfit weighed several times what Rydag did. Few people could have worn his headdress alone.

But Ranec was slow to make an appearance. Several times Ayla noticed his absence and looked for him, but when she did see him, it caught her by surprise. Everyone had enjoyed showing Ayla their dress-up clothing just to see her reaction; she was so delighted and impressed and made no pretense about it. Ranec had been observing her and wanted to create an especially memorable effect, so he returned to the Fox Hearth to change. He had been watching from the Lion Hearth, and slipped up beside her while she was involved in conversation. When she turned her head, suddenly he was there, and by her amazed look, he knew he had achieved his desired effect.

The cut and style of his tunic were unusual; its tapered body and wide flaring sleeves gave it a distinctly different look and betrayed its foreign origin. It was not a Mamutoi tunic. It was one he had traded for – and paid dearly – but he knew he had to have it from the first moment he saw it. One of the northern Camps had made a trading expedition a few years before to a western people that were distantly related to the Mamutoi, and the leader had been given the shirt as a token of mutual ties and future friendly relations. He was not inclined to give it up, but Ranec had been so persistent, and finally offered him so much for it, he couldn't refuse.

Most of the garments worn by the people of the Lion Camp had been dyed shades of browns, deep reds, and dark yellows, and heavily decorated with light-colored ivory beads, teeth, seashells, and amber, enhanced with fur and feathers. Ranec's tunic was a creamy ivory, nearly as light, but richer than true white, and he knew it made a stunning contrast to his dark skin, but even more stunning was the decoration. Both front and back of the shirt had been used as a background for a picture created with porcupine quills and fine cords which had been dyed strong, bright, primary colors.

On the front of the shirt was an abstract portrayal of a seated woman, made out of an arrangement of concentric circles in shades of true reds, oranges, blues, blacks, and browns; one set of circles represented her belly, two more were her breasts. Arcs of circles within circles indicated hips, shoulders, and arms. The head was a design based on a triangle, with a pointed chin and a flat top, with enigmatic lines instead of features on the face. In the middle of the breast and stomach circles, obviously meant to represent navel and nipples, were bright red garnets, and a line of colored stones – green and pink tourmalines, red garnets, aquamarines – had been fastened along the flat top of the head. The back of the shirt showed the same woman from the back view, with concentric circles or portions of them representing buttocks and shoulders. The same series of colors was repeated several times around the flared ends of the sleeves.

Ayla just stared, unable to speak. Even Jondalar was amazed. He had traveled far, had met many different people with many different ways of dressing, both for everyday and for ceremonial purposes. He had seen quill embroidery, and understood and admired the process of dyeing it and sewing it on, but he had never seen quite so impressive or colorful a garment before in his life.

"Ayla," Nezzie said, taking her dish from her, "Mamut wants to see you for a moment."

As she got up, everyone began to clear away food, scrape plates, and prepare for the ceremony. During the long winter ahead, a number of feasts and ceremonies would be held to add interest and variety to a relatively inactive period – the Celebration of Brothers and Sisters, the Feast of the Long Night, the Laughing Contest, several festivals and celebrations in honor of the Mother – but Ayla's adoption was an unexpected occasion, and therefore all the more welcome.

While people began moving toward the Mammoth Hearth, Ayla prepared the materials for fire-making, as Mamut had requested. Then she waited, suddenly feeling nervous and excited. The general ceremony had been explained to her, so she would know what to expect and what would be expected of her, but she hadn't grown up with the Mamutoi. Accepted attitudes and patterns of behavior were not second nature to her, and though Mamut had seemed to understand and tried to calm her fears, she worried that she might do something inappropriate.

She was sitting on a mat near the firepit watching people. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mamut drink something in one gulp. She noticed Jondalar sitting on their bed platform alone. He seemed worried, and didn't look very happy, and she found herself wondering if she was doing the right thing to become a Mamutoi. She closed her eyes and sent a silent thought to her totem. If the Spirit of the Cave Lion had not wanted it, would he have given her a sign?

She knew the ceremony was about to begin when Talut and Tulie came and stood on either side of her, and Mamut poured cold ashes on the last small fire left burning in the lodge. Even though it had happened before, and the Camp knew what to expect, waiting in the dark for fire was an unnerving experience. Ayla felt the hand on her shoulder, and struck the spark, to a chorus of relieved sighs.

When the fire was well established, she stood up. Both Talut and Tulie stepped forward, one on either side, each holding a long ivory shaft. Mamut stood behind Ayla.

"In the name of Mut, the Great Earth Mother, we are here to welcome Ayla into the lodge of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi," Tulie began. "But we do more than welcome this woman into the Lion Camp. She came here as a stranger; we wish to make her one of us, to make her Ayla of the Mamutoi."

Talut continued, "We are hunters of the great woolly mammoth, given to us by the Mother to use. The mammoth is food, is clothing, is shelter. If we honor Mut, She will cause the Spirit of the Mammoth to renew herself and return each season. If ever we dishonor the Mother, or fail to appreciate the Gift of the Spirit of the Mammoth, the mammoth will leave and never return again. So we have been told.

"The Lion Camp is like the great cave lion; each of us walks fearlessly and with pride. Ayla, too, walks fearlessly and with pride. I, Talut, of the Lion Hearth, headman of the Lion Camp, offer Ayla a place among the Mamutoi in the Lion Camp."

"It is a great honor she is offered. What makes her worthy?" a voice called out from the assembled group. Ayla recognized it as Frebec's, and was glad she had been told that it would be part of the ceremony.

"By the fire you see, Ayla has proven her value. She has discovered a great mystery, a stone from which fire can be drawn, and she has offered this magic freely, to each hearth," Tulie responded.

"Ayla is a woman of many gifts, many Talents," Talut added to the response. "By the saving of life, she has proven her value as a skilled Healer. By the bringing of food, she has proven her value as a skilled hunter with a sling, and with a new weapon brought with her when she came, a spear-thrower. By the horses beyond that arch, she has proven her value as a Controller of animals. She would bring esteem to any hearth, and value to the Lion Camp. She is worthy of the Mamutoi."

"Who speaks for this woman? Who will be responsible for her? Who will offer her the kinship of Hearth?" Tulie called out, loudly and clearly, looking at her brother. But before Talut could answer, another voice spoke out.

"The Mamut speaks for Ayla! The Mamut will be responsible! Ayla is a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth!" the old shaman said, his voice deeper, stronger, and more commanding than Ayla ever would have thought possible.

Surprised gasps and murmured conversations could be heard from the darkened area. Everyone thought she was going to be adopted into the Lion Hearth. This was unexpected… or was it? Ayla never said she was a shaman, or that she wanted to be; she didn't behave like a person familiar with the unknown and unknowable; she was not trained to control special powers. Yet, she was a Healer. She did have extraordinary control over horses, and maybe other animals. She might be a Searcher, perhaps even a Caller. Still, the Mammoth Hearth represented the spiritual essence of those Earth's children who called themselves the mammoth hunters. Ayla couldn't even express herself completely in their language yet. How could someone who did not know their ways, and who had no knowledge of Mut, interpret the needs and wishes of the Mother for them?

"Talut was going to adopt her, Mamut," Tulie said. "Why should she go to the Mammoth Hearth? She has not dedicated herself to Mut, and is not trained to Serve the Mother."

"I didn't say she was trained, or that she ever will be, Tulie, though she is more gifted than you can imagine and I think training would be very wise, for her sake. I did not say she will be a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth. I said she is a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth. She was born to it, dedicated by the Mother Herself. Whether or not she decides to be trained is a choice only she can make, but it doesn't matter in the least. Ayla does not have to dedicate herself, it is out of her hands. Trained or not, her life will Serve the Mother. I speak for her not to accept her into training, unless she wants it. I wish to adopt her as the daughter of my hearth."

As Ayla listened to the old man, she felt a sudden chill. She didn't think she liked the idea that her destiny was ordained, out of her hands, chosen for her at birth. What did he mean that she was dedicated by the Mother, that her life would Serve the Mother? Was she chosen by the Mother, too? Creb had told her, when he was explaining about totems, that there was a reason why the Spirit of the Great Cave Lion had chosen her. He said she would have need of powerful protection. What did it mean to be chosen by the Mother? Was that why she needed protection? Or did it mean if she became Mamutoi the Cave Lion would no longer be her totem? No longer protect her? It was a disquieting thought. She didn't want to lose her totem. She shook herself, trying to dispel her sense of foreboding.

If Jondalar had been feeling uneasy about her adoption, this sudden turn of events made him even more uncomfortable. He heard the whispered comments of the people around him and wondered if it was true that she was meant to become one of them. She might even have been Mamutoi, before she was lost, if Mamut said she was born to the Mammoth Hearth.

Ranec was overjoyed. He had wanted Ayla to become one of them, but if she was adopted to the Lion Hearth, she would be his sister. He had no wish to be her brother. He wanted to join with her, and brother and sister could not join. Since both would be adopted, and obviously did not have the same mother, he was prepared to find another hearth that would adopt him so he could pursue his suit, much as he would hate to give up his ties with Nezzie and Talut. But if she was adopted into the Mammoth Hearth, he didn't have to. He was particularly pleased that she would be adopted as the daughter of Mamut, and not as One dedicated to Serve, although even that would not have deterred him.

Nezzie was a little disappointed; she already felt as though Ayla were a daughter. But most important to Nezzie was that Ayla stay with them, and if Mamut wanted her, it would just make her all that more acceptable to the Council at the Summer Meeting. Talut glanced at her, and when she nodded, he conceded to Mamut. Tulie had no objection, either. The four of them quickly conferred, and Ayla agreed. For some reason she couldn't quite define, it pleased her to be the daughter of Mamut.

As the darkened lodge quieted again, Mamut held his hand up, palm backward, facing him. "Will the woman, Ayla, step forward?"

Ayla's stomach churned and her knees felt weak as she approached the old man.

"Do you wish to be one with the Mamutoi?" he asked.

"Yes," she whispered, her voice cracking.

"Will you honor Mut, the Great Mother, revere all Her Spirits and, especially, never offend the Spirit of the Mammoth; will you strive to be worthy of the Mamutoi, to bring honor to the Lion Camp, and always respect Mamut and the meaning of the Mammoth Hearth?"

"Yes." She could hardly say more. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do to accomplish all of it, but she would certainly try.

"Does this Camp accept this woman?" Mamut said to the assembly.

"We accept her," they replied in unison.

"Are there any here that reject her?"

There was a long pause, and Ayla wasn't at all sure that Frebec wouldn't speak out in objection, but none replied.

"Talut, headman of the Lion Camp, will you inscribe the mark?" Mamut intoned.

As Ayla saw Talut withdraw his knife from the sheath, her heart beat fast. This was unexpected. She didn't know what he was going to do with the knife, but whatever it was, she was sure she wouldn't like it. The big headman took Ayla's arm, pushed up her sleeve, and poised the flint knife, then quickly cut a straight mark on her upper arm, drawing blood. Ayla felt the pain, but she didn't flinch. With the blood still wet on the knife, Talut incised a straight mark on the piece of ivory hanging as a plaque around his neck, held by Mamut, making a red-stained gouge. Then Mamut said some words Ayla did not understand. She didn't realize no one else understood them either.

"Ayla is now counted among the people of the Lion Camp, numbered among the Mammoth Hunters," Talut said. "This woman is and will forever be Ayla of the Mamutoi."

Mamut picked up a small bowl and poured stinging liquid in the cut on her arm – she realized it was an antiseptic cleansing solution – then he turned her around to face the group. "Welcome Ayla of the Mamutoi, member of the Lion Camp, daughter of the Mammoth Hearth." He paused for a moment, then added, "Chosen of the Spirit of the Great Cave Lion."

The group repeated the words, and Ayla realized it was the second time in her life that she had been taken in, accepted, and made a member of a people whose ways she hardly knew. She closed her eyes, hearing the words echo in her mind. Then it struck her. Mamut had included her totem! Even though she was not Ayla of the Clan, she had not lost her totem! She was still under the protection of the Cave Lion. But even more, she was not Ayla of No People; she was Ayla of the Mamutoi!

18

"You may always claim the sanctuary of the Mammoth Hearth, Ayla, wherever you are. Please accept this token, daughter of my hearth," Mamut said as he removed a circlet of ivory carved with zigzag lines from his arm and tied the pierced ends together on Ayla's arm, just below her cut. Then he gave her a warm embrace.

Ayla had tears in her eyes when she went to the bed platform where her gifts were laid out, but she wiped them away before she picked up a wooden bowl. It was round, strong, but of uniformly fine thinness. The bowl boasted neither painted nor carved design, only a subtle pattern of the wood grain, but that was symmetrically balanced.

"Please accept gift of medicine bowl from daughter of hearth, Mamut," Ayla said. "And if you allow, daughter of hearth will fill bowl every day with medicine for aching joints, of fingers and arms and knees."

"Ah, I would welcome some relief from my arthritis this winter," he said with a smile, taking the bowl and passing it to Talut, who looked it over, nodded, and passed it to Tulie.

Tulie examined it critically, at first judging it to be simplistic because it lacked the additional design, either carved or painted, that she was accustomed to. But as she looked more closely, running her fingertips over the remarkably smooth finish, noting the perfect shape and symmetry, she had to concede that it was certainly a finely crafted piece of work, perhaps the finest piece of workmanship of its kind she had ever seen. As the bowl was passed around, it aroused the interest and curiosity about the other gifts Ayla had brought even more as each person wondered if every gift would be as beautifully unusual.

Talut came forward next and gave Ayla a big hug, then presented her with an ivory-handled flint knife in a red-dyed rawhide sheath which was carved with an intricate design, similar to the knife Deegie wore on her belt. Ayla took the knife out of the sheath, and immediately guessed that the blade had probably been made by Wymez, and suspected that Ranec had carved and shaped the handle.

Ayla brought out a heavy pile of dark fur for Talut. He grinned wide when he shook out the mantle made from an entire bison hide, and flung it over his shoulders. The thick mane and shoulder fur made the big man seem even bigger than he was, and he enjoyed the effect. Then he noticed the way it clung to his shoulders and hung down in pliant folds, and examined the soft and supple inside of the warm cloak more closely.

"Nezzie! Look at this," he said. "Have you ever seen softer hide on a bison pelt? And this is warm. I don't think I want this made into anything, not even a parka! I'm going to wear it just as it is."

Ayla smiled at his delight, pleased that her gift was so well liked. Jondalar was standing back, looking over several heads that were crowding in closer, enjoying Talut's reaction, too. He'd anticipated it, but was glad to see his expectations borne out.

Nezzie gave Ayla a warm hug, and then a necklace of matched and graduated spiral shells, each one separated by carefully sawed small sections of the hard hollow leg bones of arctic fox and, suspended as a pendant in front, a large canine tooth of a cave lion. Ayla held it on while Tronie tied it in back, then she looked down and admired it, holding up the cave lion tooth, and wondering how they had managed to pierce the hole through the root.

Ayla pushed the drape in front of the platform aside and brought out a very large covered basket, and set it down at Nezzie's feet. It seemed quite plain. None of the grasses out of which it was made had been dyed, and no colored patterns of geometric designs or stylized figures of birds or animals graced the sides or cover. But on close inspection, the woman noticed the subtle design, and saw how expertly it was made. It was watertight enough to be a cooking basket, she knew.

Nezzie lifted the cover to examine it, and the whole camp voiced its surprise. The basket, divided into sections by flexible birchbark, was full of food. There were small hard apples, sweet and spicy wild carrots, peeled, gnarled roots of starchy groundnuts, pitted dried cherries, dried but still green day-lily buds, round green milk vetch dried in the pod, dried mushrooms, dried stalks of green onions, and some unidentifiable dried leaves and slices. Nezzie smiled warmly at her as she examined the selection. It was a perfect gift.

Tulie approached next. Her embrace of welcome was not lacking in warmth, but more formal, and her presentation of her gift to Ayla, while not exactly done with a flourish, demonstrated a proper sense of ceremony. The gift was a small container, exquisitely decorated. It had been carved, out of wood into the shape of a small box with rounded corners. Designs of fish were both carved and painted on it, and pieces of shell glued on it as well. The overall design gave the impression of water alive with fish and underwater plants. When Ayla lifted the lid, she discovered the purpose of so precious a box. It was filled with salt.

She had some idea of the value of salt. When she grew up with the Clan, who lived near Beran Sea, she had taken salt for granted. It was fairly easy to obtain, and some of the fish were even cured with it, but inland, when she lived in her valley, she had had no salt, and it had taken some time to get used to it. The Lion Camp was farther away from the sea than her valley. The salt, as well as the seashells, had to be transported over a long distance, yet Tulie had given her this whole box of it. It was a rare and costly gift.

Ayla felt properly awed as she brought out her gift for the headwoman, and she hoped that Jondalar had been right in his suggestion of what would be appropriate. The fur she had selected was the pelt of a snow leopard, one that had attempted to snatch a kill away from her the winter she and Baby were learning to hunt together. She had just planned to scare it off, but the adolescent cave lion had other ideas. Ayla had stunned the mature, though smaller, cat with a stone from her sling when it looked like a fight would ensue, and then finished it off with another.

The gift was obviously unexpected, and Tulie's eyes showed her pleasure, but it wasn't until she succumbed to the temptation to throw the luxurious, thick winter fur around her shoulders that she noticed its unique quality, the same quality Talut had remarked upon. It felt unbelievably soft on the inner side. Furs were usually stiffer than hides. By its nature, fur could only be worked on one side with the scrapers used to stretch and soften. While it made a longer-lasting, sturdier material than Ayla's, which were only dressed with fat, the Mamutoi method of preserving skins made the leather less soft and pliable. Tulie was more impressed than she had expected to be, and decided she would find out what Ayla's method was.

Wymez approached with an object wrapped in a soft skin. She opened it, and caught her breath. It was a magnificent spear point, like the ones she had so admired. It sparkled in the firelight like a faceted gem, and was more valuable. Her gift to him was a sturdy grass floor mat for him to sit on when he worked. Most of Ayla's basket and mat weaving had no colored designs, but the last winter in her cave she had begun to experiment with different grasses that had natural color variations. The result, in combination with her usual weaving patterns, was a mat with a subtle but distinctive starburst pattern. She had been quite pleased when she made it, and when she was selecting gifts, its pointed rays extending out from the center reminded her of Wymez's beautiful points, and the woven texture was suggestive of the small ridges of fine slivers he flaked off. She wondered if he would notice.

After he examined it, he gave her one of his rare smiles. "This is beautiful. It reminds me of the work done by Ranec's mother. She understood weaving with grasses better than anyone I ever knew. I suppose I should save it, hang it on the wall, but I will use it instead. I will sit on this when I work. It will help me keep my purpose in mind." His welcoming hug had none of the reticence of his verbal manner. She realized that beneath his quiet exterior Wymez was a man of friendly warmth and perceptive feeling.

There was no special sequence or order to the gift giving, and the next person Ayla noticed, standing near the platform waiting to get her attention, was Rydag. She sat down near him, and returned his fierce hug. Then he opened his hand and held out a long round tube, the hollow leg bone of a bird, with holes cut in it. She took it from the boy, and turned it around in her hands, not sure of its purpose. He took it back, held it to his mouth, and blew. The whistle emitted a loud, piercing sound. Ayla tried it and smiled. Then she gave him a warm, waterproof wolverine hood made in the style of the Clan, but she felt a wrenching pain when he put it on. He reminded her too much of Durc.

"I gave him a whistle like that to call me if he needs me. Sometimes he doesn't have breath enough to yell, but enough to blow a whistle," Nezzie explained, "but he made that one himself."

Deegie surprised her with the outfit she had planned to wear that evening. When she saw the look in Ayla's eyes at the sight of it, Deegie decided to give it to her. Ayla was beyond words, and just stared at it until her eyes filled with tears. "I have never had anything to wear that was so beautiful."

She gave Deegie her gift then, a stack of baskets and several beautifully finished wooden bowls of various sizes, which could be used as drinking cups or for soups, or even to cook in, for her to use at her hearth after she joined with Branag. In a region where wood was relatively rare, and bone and ivory more commonly used for utensils, the bowls were a special gift. They were both delighted, and hugged with the warmth of sisters.

To show that he did not begrudge her a decent gift, Frebec gave her a pair of knee-high fur boots, decorated and quilted near the top, and she was glad she had selected some of her best summer reindeer pelts for him. The hair of the reindeer was hollow, a minute air-filled tube, and naturally insulating. The summer hide was both the warmest and the lightest weight, the most practical and comfortable to wear during cold weather hunting of any animal's fur, and therefore the most valuable. From the pieces she gave him, a complete outfit of tunic and trousers could be made that would be so warm only a single additional outer garment would be needed even during the coldest weather, freeing him from bulky weight. He noticed the softness of her finished skins as the others had, but he did not remark on it and his hug of welcome was stiff.

Fralie gave her fur mittens to match the boots, and Ayla gave the pregnant woman a beautiful wooden cooking bowl, filled with a pouch of dried leaves. "I hope you like this tea, Fralie," she said, giving her a direct stare, as though to emphasize her words. "Is good to drink cup in morning when first wake up, and maybe another at night, before sleep. If you like, I will give more when this gone."

Fralie nodded agreement as they embraced. Frebec looked at them suspiciously, but Ayla was only giving a gift, and he could hardly complain about Fralie's gift from the newest member of the Lion Camp, could he? Ayla was not entirely happy with the circumstances. She would have preferred to treat Fralie directly and openly, but the subterfuge was better than not helping her at all, and Fralie refused to be put into a situation where it might seem that she was making a choice between her mother and her mate.

Crozie came forward next and nodded approvingly at Ayla. Then she gave her a small leather bag, sewn together around the sides and gathered at the top. The pouch was dyed red, beautifully decorated with small ivory beads, and embroidered in white with downward pointing triangles. Small white crane feathers were arrayed around the circular bottom edge. Ayla admired it, but when she made no move to do so, Deegie told her to open it. Inside were cords and threads made of mammoth wool, sinew, animal fur, and plant fibers, all carefully wound into circles or around small phalanges of bone. The sewing sack also contained sharp blades and awls for cutting and piercing. Ayla was delighted. She wanted to learn the Mamutoi ways of making and decorating clothes.

From her platform she took a small wooden bowl with a close-fitting lid and gave it to the old woman. When Crozie opened it, she looked at Ayla with a puzzled expression. It was filled with pure white marbleized softened tallow – tasteless, colorless, odorless animal fat that had been rendered in simmering water. She smelled it, and smiled, but was still puzzled.

"I make rose water, from petals… mix with… other things," Ayla started to explain.

"That's what makes it smell nice, I suppose, but what is it for?" Crozie asked.

"Is for hands, for face, elbows, feet. Feel good. Make smooth," Ayla said, taking a small dab and rubbing it on the back of the woman's dry, chapped, wrinkled old hand. After it was rubbed in, Crozie touched her hand, then closed her eyes, and slowly felt the smoother skin. When the old harridan opened her eyes, Ayla thought they glistened more, though no tears were in evidence, but when the woman gave her a hard hug of welcome, Ayla felt her shaking underneath.

Each gift exchanged made everyone anticipate the next one more, and Ayla was enjoying the giving as much as the receiving. Her gifts were as unusual to them as theirs were to her, and it was as much fun to see her gifts well received as it was to feel overwhelmed by the gifts presented to her. She had never felt so special, had never been made to feel so welcome, so wanted. If she let herself think about it, tears of joy threatened.

Ranec was hanging back, waiting until all the other gifts were exchanged. He wanted to be last so his gift would not be confused with all the others. Among all the special and unique gifts she had received, he wanted his to be most memorable. Ayla was putting her things away on the platform that was just as full as when she began, when she saw the gift she had chosen for Ranec. She had to think for a moment before she realized she hadn't exchanged gifts with him yet. With it in her hands, she turned around to look for him, only to find herself looking into the teeth of his teasing smile.

"Did you forget one for me?" he said. He was standing so close she could see large black pupils and, for the first time, converging faint streaks of light within the dark brown of his eyes – his deep, liquid, compelling dark eyes. She felt a warmth emanating from him that disconcerted her.

"No, ah… did not forget… Here," she said, remembering the gift was in her hands and holding it up. He glanced down and his eyes showed his pleasure at the thick, lush, winter-white pelts of arctic foxes she held out to him. The moment of hesitation gave her the chance to compose herself, and when he looked back at her, her eyes held a teasing smile. "I think you forget."

He grinned, as much because she was so quick to catch on and play along with his joking as because it gave him an appropriate opening to present his gift.

"No. I did not forget. Here," he said, and brought out the object he had been hiding behind his back. She looked at the piece of carved ivory cradled in his hands, and almost didn't believe what she saw. And even when he relieved her of the white furs she held in her hands, she didn't reach for it. She was almost afraid to touch it. She looked up at him with sheer wonder.

"Ranec," she breathed, reaching, then hesitating. He had to urge it on her, and then she held it as though it might break. "This is Whinney! Is like you take Whinney and make small," she exclaimed, turning the exquisite, carved ivory horse, no more than three inches in length, over in her hands. A touch of color had been applied to the sculpture: yellow ochre on the coat, and ground black charcoal on the legs, the stiff mane and along the spine to the tail to match Whinney's coloring. "Look, little ears, just right. And hooves, and tail. Even markings like her coat. Oh, Ranec, how you do it?"

Ranec couldn't have been happier as he gave her a warm embrace of welcome. Her reaction was exactly what he had been hoping for, even dreaming of, and the look of love in his eyes when he watched her was so obvious, it brought tears to Nezzie's eyes. She glanced at Jondalar and knew he saw it, too. Anguish was etched on his face. She shook her head knowingly.

After all the gifts were exchanged, Ayla went with Deegie to the Aurochs Hearth to change into the new outfit. Ever since Ranec had acquired the foreign shirt, Deegie had been trying to match the color. She had finally come close, and from the cream-colored leather she had made a short-sleeved V-neck tunic with a V-shaped hemline, with leggings to match, belted with finger-woven ties of bright colors similar to the colors of the designs on the shirt. The summer spent outside left Ayla's skin deeply tanned, and her blond hair lightened, almost the color of the leather. The outfit suited her as though it had been made especially for her.

With Deegie's help, Ayla put back Mamut's ivory armband, then added Talut's red-sheathed knife, and the necklace from Nezzie, but when the young Mamutoi woman suggested that she remove the worn, dirt-stained, lumpy leather pouch from around her neck, Ayla adamantly refused.

"Is my amulet, Deegie. Holds Spirit of Cave Lion, of Clan, of me. Little pieces, like Ranec's carving is little Whinney. Creb told me, if I lose amulet, totem cannot find me. I will die," Ayla tried to explain.

Deegie thought for a moment, looking at Ayla. The whole effect was spoiled by the grubby little leather bag. Even the thong around her neck was frayed, but that gave her an idea.

"Ayla, what do you do when it wears out? That thong looks like it will break soon," Deegie asked.

"I make new bag, new thong."

"Then, it's not the bag that is so important, but what's inside it, right?'"

"Yes…"

Deegie looked around and suddenly spotted the sewing sack Crozie had given Ayla. She picked it up, emptied the contents carefully onto a platform, and held it out to her. "Is there any reason you can't use this? We can fasten it to a string of beads – one from your hair will be fine – and you can wear it around your neck."

Ayla took the beautiful, decorated bag from Deegie, looked at it, then wrapped her hand around the familiar old leather pouch and felt the sense of comfort the Clan amulet gave her. But she wasn't Clan any more. She hadn't lost her totem. The Spirit of the Cave Lion still protected her, and the signs she had been given were still important, but she was Mamutoi now.

When Ayla went back to the Mammoth Hearth, she was every inch a Mamutoi woman, a beautiful, well-dressed Mamutoi woman of high status and obvious value, and every eye had approving looks for the newest member of the Lion Camp. But two sets of eyes showed more than approval. Love and longing gleamed from dark laughing eyes full of eager hope no less than from the miserably unhappy eyes of an impossibly vivid shade of blue.

Manuv, with Nuvie on his lap, smiled warmly at Ayla as she passed by on her way to put her other clothes away, and she beamed back, so full of joy and happiness she didn't think she could contain it all. She was Ayla of the Mamutoi, and she was going to do everything she could to be completely one of them. Then she saw Jondalar talking to Danug, only from the back, but felt her elation collapse. Perhaps it was his stance, or the way he held his shoulders, but something at a subliminal level made her pause. Jondalar was not happy. But what could she do about it now?

She hurried to get the firestones. Mamut had told her to wait until later before giving them away. Appropriate ceremony would invest the stones with proper significance, and enhance their value. She picked up the small, yellow-gray metallic-colored nodules of iron pyrite and brought them with her to the hearth. On her way, she passed behind Tulie, who was talking to Nezzie and Wymez, and overheard her speaking.

"…but I had no idea she had so much wealth. Just look at the furs alone. The bison hide, and the white fox pelts, and this snow leopard – you don't see many of these around…"

Ayla smiled as her feeling of joy returned. Her gifts had been acceptable, and appreciated.

The old man of mystery had not been idle. While she was changing, Mamut was changing, too. His face was painted with zigzag lines that accented and enhanced his tattoo, and he wore as a cape the hide of a cave lion, the same cave lion whose tail Talut sported. Mamut's necklace was made of short hollowed-out sections of the tusk of a small mammoth interspersed with canine teeth of several different animals, including one of a cave lion that matched hers.

"Talut is planning a hunt, so I will Search," the shaman told her. "Join me, if you can – and want to. In any case, be prepared."

Ayla nodded, but her stomach churned.

Tulie came toward the hearth and smiled at her. "I didn't know Deegie was going to give that to you," she said. "I'm not sure if I would have approved earlier; she worked hard on it, but I must admit it becomes you, Ayla."

Ayla just smiled, not sure how to respond.

"That's why I gave it to her, Mother," Deegie said, approaching with her skull instrument. "I was trying to work out the process of getting finished leather to come out so light. I can always make another outfit."

"I'm ready," Tornec announced as he arrived with his mammoth bone instrument.

"Good. You can start as soon as Ayla starts handing out the stones," Mamut said. "Where's Talut?"

"He's been pouring his brew," Tornec said, smiling, "and he's being very generous. He said he wants this to be a suitable celebration."

"And it will be, too!" the big headman said. "Here Ayla, I brought you a cup. After all, you are the reason for this occasion!"

Ayla tasted the drink, still finding the fermented flavor not entirely to her taste, but all the rest of the Mamutoi seemed to enjoy it. She decided she would learn to enjoy it, too. She wanted to be one of them, to do what they did, to like what they liked. She drank it down. Talut filled her cup again.

"Talut will tell you when to start giving out the stones, Ayla. Strike each one and get a spark just before you give it," Mamut instructed. She nodded, looked at the cup in her hand, then drank the contents, shaking her head at the potent beverage, and put the cup down to pick up the stones.

"Ayla is now counted among the Lion Camp," Talut said, as soon as everyone settled down, "but she has one more gift. For each hearth, a stone to make fire. Nezzie is the keeper of the Lion Hearth. Ayla will give the firestone to her to keep."

As Ayla walked toward Nezzie, she struck the iron pyrite with flint, drawing a bright spark, then she gave her the stone.

"Who is the keeper of the Fox Hearth?" Talut continued as Deegie and Tornec began beating on the bone instruments.

"I am. Ranec is the keeper of the Fox Hearth."

Ayla brought him a stone, and struck it. But when she gave it to him, he whispered, in a low, warm voice, "The fox furs are softer and more beautiful than any I have ever seen. I will keep them on my bed and think of you every night when I feel their softness against my bare skin." He touched her face, only lightly, with the back of his hand, but she felt it as a physical shock.

She backed away, confused, as Talut asked for the keeper of the Reindeer Hearth, and had to strike the stone twice to get a spark for Tronie. Fralie took the stone for the Crane Hearth, and by the time Tulie took hers, and she gave one to Mamut, for the Mammoth Hearth, Ayla was feeling dizzy, and more than willing to sit down near the fire where Mamut indicated.

The drums began to have their effect. The sound was soothing and compelling at the same time. The lodge was darkened – a small fire diffused through the screen was the only light. She could hear breathing, close by, and looked to see where it was coming from. Crouched, near the fire, was a man – or was it a lion? The breathing became a low growl, almost, but not quite – to her perceptive ear – like the warning growl of a cave lion. The vocalized drumming picked up the sound, giving it resonance and depth.

Suddenly, with a savage snarl, the lion figure leaped, and the silhouette of a lion moved across the screen. But it almost jerked to a stop in a startled response to Ayla's unintentional reaction. She challenged the shadow lion with a growl so realistic and so menacing it brought a gasp from most of the people watching. The silhouette recovered its lion stance and answered with the soothing growl of a lion backing down. Ayla voiced an angry snarl of victory, then began a series of "hnk, hnk, hnk" grunts that faded as though the lion were walking away.

Mamut smiled to himself. Her lion is so perfect it would fool a lion, he thought, pleased that she had spontaneously joined him. Ayla didn't know why she did, herself, except that after her first impromptu challenge, it was fun to talk like a lion with Mamut. She hadn't done anything like it since Baby left her valley. The drums had picked up and enhanced the scene, but now were following the silhouette moving sinuously across the screen. She was close enough to see that it was Mamut creating the action, but even she became caught up in the effect. She wondered, though, how the normally stiff and arthritic old man could move with such ease. Then she remembered seeing him gulp something down earlier, and suspected it might have been a strong painkiller. He would probably suffer for this the next day.

Suddenly Mamut leaped out from behind the screen and squatted by his mammoth skull drum. He beat on it rapidly for a short time, then stopped suddenly. He picked up a cup Ayla hadn't noticed before, drank from it, then approaching her, offered it. Without even thinking about it, she took a small sip, and then another, though the taste was strong, musky, and unpleasant. Encouraged by the talking drums, she soon began to feel the effects.

The leaping flames behind the screen gave the animals painted on it a feeling of movement. She was entranced by them, concentrated her entire attention on them, and heard only in the distance the voices of the Camp beginning to chant. A baby cried, but it seemed to come from some other world as she was drawn along by the strange flickering motion of the animals on the screen. They seemed almost alive, as the drum music filled her with pounding hooves, bawling calves, trumpeting mammoths.

Then, it was dark no longer. Instead, a hazy sun overlooked a snowy plain. A small herd of musk-oxen was huddled together, a blizzard swirling around them. As she swooped low, she sensed she was not alone. Mamut was with her. The scene shifted. The storm was over, but wind-driven whirling snow-devils wailed across the steppes like ghostly apparitions. She and Mamut moved away from the desolate emptiness. Then, she noticed a few bison standing stoically on the lee side of a narrow valley, trying to stay out of the wind. She was racing ahead, darting along the river valley that cut deep ravines. They followed a tributary that narrowed into a steep-walled canyon ahead, and she saw the familiar side path up the dry bed of a seasonal stream.

And then she was in a dark place looking down at a small fire and people huddled around a screen. She heard a slow chant, a continuous repetition of sound. When she flickered her eyelids and saw blurred faces, she saw Nezzie and Talut and Jondalar looking down at her with worried expressions.

"Are you all right?" Jondalar asked, speaking Zelandonii.

"Yes, yes. I'm all right, Jondalar. What happened? Where was I?"

"You'll have to tell me."

"How do you feel?" Nezzie asked. "Mamut always likes this tea, afterward."

"I am fine," she said, sitting up and taking the cup. She did feel fine. A little tired, and a little dizzy, but not bad.

"I don't think it was as frightening for you this time, Ayla," Mamut said, coming toward her.

Ayla smiled. "No, I am not frightened, but what we do?"

"We Searched. I thought you were a Searcher. That's why you are a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth," he said. "You have other natural Talents, Ayla, but you need training." He saw her frown. "Don't worry about it now. There is time to think about it later."

Talut poured out more of his brew for Ayla and several others while Mamut told them about the Search, where they went, what they found. She gulped it down – it didn't seem so bad that way – then tried to listen, but it seemed to go to her head quickly. Her mind wandered and she noticed that Deegie and Tornec were still playing their instruments, but with tones so rhythmic and appealing it made her want to move with them. It reminded her of the Women's Dance of the Clan, and she found it hard to concentrate on Mamut.

She felt spmeone watching her, and glanced around. Near the Fox Hearth she saw Ranec staring at her. He smiled and she smiled back. Suddenly Talut was filling her cup again. Ranec came forward and offered his cup for filling; Talut complied, then turned back to the discussion.

"You're not interested in this, are you? Let's go over there, where Deegie and Tornec are playing," Ranec said in a low voice, leaning close to her ear.

"I think not. They talk about hunt." Ayla turned back to the serious discussion, but she had missed so much of it she didn't know where they were, and they didn't seem to notice if she was listening or not.

"You won't miss anything. They'll tell us all about it later. Listen to that," he said, pausing to let her hear the pulsing musical sounds coming from the other side of the hearth. "Wouldn't you rather see how Tornec does that? He's really very good."

Ayla leaned toward the sound, pulled by the rhythmic beat. She glanced at the group making plans, then looked at Ranec and broke into a full beaming smile. "Yes, I rather see Tornec!" she said, feeling pleased with herself.

As they got up, Ranec, standing close, stopped her. "You must stop smiling, Ayla," he said, his tone serious and stern.

"Why?" she asked with deep concern, her smile gone, wondering what she had done wrong.

"Because you are so lovely when you smile, you take my breath away," Ranec said, and he meant every word, but then he continued, "And how will I walk with you if I'm gasping for breath?"

Ayla's smile returned at his compliment, then the idea of him gasping for breath because she smiled made her giggle. It was a joke, of course, she thought, though she wasn't entirely sure he was joking. They walked toward the new entrance to the Mammoth Hearth.

Jondalar observed them as they approached. He had been enjoying the rhythms and music while he was waiting for her, but he did not enjoy seeing Ayla walking toward the music makers with Ranec. He felt jealousy rise in his throat, and had a wild urge to strike out at the man who dared to advance on the woman he loved. But Ranec, for all that he looked different, was Mamutoi, and belonged to the Lion Camp. Jondalar was only a guest. They would stand up for their own, and he was alone. He tried to exert control and reason. Ranec and Ayla were only walking together. How could he object to that?

He had had mixed feelings about her adoption from the beginning. He wanted her to belong to some group of people, because she wanted it, and, he admitted, so she would be more acceptable to his people. He had seen how happy she was when they were exchanging gifts, and he was pleased for her, but felt distant from it, and more worried than ever that she might not want to leave. He wondered if he should have allowed himself to be adopted after all.

He had felt a part of Ayla's adoption in the beginning. But he felt like an outsider now, even to Ayla. She was one of them. This was her night, her celebration, hers and the Lion Camp's. He had given her no gift, and had not received one in exchange. He hadn't even thought of it, though now he wished he had. But he had no gifts to give, to her or anyone. He had arrived here with nothing, and he had not spent years making and accumulating things. He had learned many things in his travels and had accumulated knowledge, but he'd had no opportunity to benefit from his acquisitions, yet. All he had brought with him was Ayla.

With a dark scowl, Jondalar watched her smiling and laughing with Ranec, feeling like an unwanted intruder.

19

When the discussion broke up, Talut doled out more of his fermented beverage, made from the starch of cattail roots and various other ingredients, which he was constantly experimenting with. The festivities centered on Deegie and Tornec became more lively. They played music, people sang, sometimes together and other times individually. Some people danced, not the energetic kind of dance Ayla had seen earlier, outside, but a subtle form of body movement made standing in one place in time to the rhythm, often with a singing accompaniment.

Ayla noticed Jondalar often, hanging back somewhat, and started toward him several times, but something always interrupted. There were so many people, and all of them seemed to be vying for her attention. She was not entirely in control of herself from Talut's drink, and her concentration was easily distracted.

She took a turn on Deegie's musical skull drum, with enthusiastic encouragement, and remembered some of the Clan rhythms. They were complex, distinctive, and, to the Lion Camp, unusual and intriguing. If Mamut had any doubts left about Ayla's origins, the memories triggered by her playing eliminated them completely.

Then Ranec stood up to dance and sing a humorous song full of innuendo and double meanings about the Pleasures of Gifts, directed at Ayla. It brought broad grins and knowing glances, and was obvious enough to make Ayla blush. Deegie showed her how to dance and sing the satirical response, but at the end, where a hint of acceptance or rejection was supposed to finish it, Ayla stopped. She could do neither. She didn't quite understand the subtleties of the game, and while it wasn't her intention to encourage him, she didn't want him to think she didn't like him, either. Ranec smiled. Disguised as humor, the song was often used as a face-saving means of discovering if interest was mutual. Not even a flat rejection would have stopped him; he considered anything less, promising.

Ayla was giddy with the drink and the laughter, and the attention. Everyone wanted to include her, everyone wanted to talk to her, to listen to her, to put an arm around her and feel close. She couldn't remember ever having so much fun, or feeling so warm and friendly, or so wanted. And every time she turned around, she saw an enraptured, gleaming smile and flashing dark eyes concentrated on her.

As the evening wore on, the group began to diminish. Children dropped off to sleep and were carried to their beds. Fralie had gone to bed early, at Ayla's suggestion, and the rest of Crane Hearth followed soon after. Tronie, complaining of a headache – she hadn't been feeling well that evening – went to her hearth to nurse Hartal, and fell asleep. Jondalar slipped away then, too. He stretched out on the sleeping platform, waiting for Ayla, and watching her.

Wymez was uncommonly voluble, after a few cups of Talut's bouza, and told stories and made teasing remarks first to Ayla, then to Deegie, then to all the women. Tulie began to find him suddenly interesting, after all this time, and teased and joked back. She ended up inviting him to spend the night at the Aurochs Hearth with her and Barzec. She hadn't shared her bed with a second man since Darnev died.

Wymez decided it might be a good idea to leave the hearth to Ranec, and perhaps not so unwise to let it be known that a woman could choose two men. He was not blind to the situation that was developing, though he doubted that any agreement could be reached between Ranec and Jondalar. But the big woman did seem particularly attractive this evening, and she was a highly valued headwoman who had a great deal of status to bestow. Who could tell what changes he might want to make if Ranec decided to change the composition of the Fox Hearth?

Not long after the three of them headed toward the back of the lodge, Talut teased Nezzie to the Lion Hearth. Deegie and Tornec got involved in experimenting with their instruments, to the exclusion of everyone else, and Ayla thought she heard some of her rhythms. Then she realized she and Ranec were talking alone, and it made her self-conscious.

"I think everyone go to bed," she said, her voice a little slurred. She was feeling the effects of the bouza, and weaved back and forth where she stood. Most of the lamps were gone, and the fire had burned low.

"Perhaps we should," he said, smiling. Ayla felt the unspoken invitation gleaming in his eyes, and was drawn to it, but she didn't know how to deal with it.

"Yes. I am tired," she said, starting toward her bed platform. Ranec took her hand and held her back.

"Ayla, don't go." His smile was gone, and his tone was insistent. She turned back, and the next instant, his arms were around her, and his mouth was hard on hers. She opened hers slightly, and his response was immediate. He kissed her all over, her mouth, her neck, her throat. His hands reached for her breasts, then caressed her hips, and her thighs, and cupped her mound, as though he couldn't get enough of her and wanted her all at once. Unexpected shocks of excitement coursed through her. He pressed her to him, and she felt a hard hot lump against her, and a sudden warmth of her own between her legs.

"Ayla, I want you. Come to my bed," he said with commanding urgency. With unexpected complaisance, she followed him.

All evening, Jondalar had watched the woman he loved laughing and joking and dancing with her new people, and the longer he watched, the more of an outsider he felt. But it was the attentive dark-skinned carver, in particular, that galled him. He wanted to vent his wrath, step in and take Ayla away, but this was her home now, this was the night of her adoption. What right did he have to interfere in their celebration? He could only put on a face of acceptance, if not pleasure, but he felt miserable, and went to the bed platform wishing for the oblivion of sleep that would not come.

From the dark enclosed space, Jondalar watched Ranec embrace Ayla and lead her away toward his bed, and felt a shock of disbelief. How could she be going with another man when he was waiting for her? No woman had ever chosen someone else when he wanted her, and this was the woman he loved! He wanted to jump up, grab her away, and smash his fist into that smiling mouth.

Then he imagined broken teeth and blood, and remembered the agony of shame and exile. These were not even his people. They would surely turn him out, and in the freezing cold night of the periglacial steppes there was no place to go. And how could he go anyplace without his Ayla?

But she had made the choice. She had chosen Ranec, and it was her right to choose anyone she wanted. Just because Jondalar was waiting didn't mean she had to go to him, and she hadn't. She chose a man of her own people, a Mamutoi man who sang and danced and flirted with her, and with whom she had laughed and had fun. Could he blame her? How many times had he chosen someone with whom he had laughed and had fun?

But how could she do it? This was the woman he loved! How could she choose someone else when he loved her? Jondalar anguished and despaired, but what could he do? Nothing but swallow his bitter gorge of jealousy, and watch the woman he loved follow another man to his bed.

Ayla wasn't thinking clearly, her mind was muddled from Talut's brew, and there was no question that she was attracted to Ranec, but those weren't the reasons she went with him. She would have gone no matter what. Ayla was brought up by the Clan. She was taught to comply, without question, with any man who commanded her, who gave her the signal that he desired to copulate with her.

If any man of the Clan gave the signal to any woman, she was expected to render the service, just as she would bring him food or water. Though it was deemed a courtesy to request a woman's services of her mate, or the man she was usually associated with, first, it was not required, and would have been given as a matter of course. A man's mate was his to command, but not exclusively. The bond between a woman and a man was mutually beneficial, companionate and often, after a time, affectionate, but to show jealousy, or any strong emotion, was unthinkable. It didn't make a man's mate any less his because she rendered a small service to someone else; and he didn't love the children of his mate any less. He assumed a certain responsibility for them, in terms of care and training, but his hunting provided for his clan, and all food, gathered and hunted, was shared.

Ranec had given Ayla what she had come to interpret as the "signal" of the Others, a command to satisfy his sexual needs. Like any properly raised woman of the Clan, it didn't even occur to her to refuse. She looked toward her bed platform once, but did not see the blue eyes full of shock and pain. It would have surprised her if she had.

Ranec's ardor had not cooled by the time they walked to the Fox Hearth, but he was more controlled once Ayla was within its boundaries, though he could hardly believe it. They sat down on his bed platform. She noticed the white furs she had given him. She started to untie her belt, but Ranec stopped her.

"I want to undress you, Ayla. I've dreamed of this, and I want it to be just right," Ranec said.

She shrugged, agreeably. She had already noticed that Ranec was different from Jondalar in certain ways, and it made her curious. It wasn't a matter of judging which man was better, just noting differences.

Ranec looked at her for a while. "You are so beautiful," he said, finally, as he leaned over to kiss her. His mouth was soft, though it could be hard when he kissed her hard. She noticed his dark hand outlined by the white fur, and rubbed his arm gently. His skin felt the same as any other skin.

He started by taking off the beads and shells she had in her hair, then he ran his hands through it, and brought it to his face to feel and smell. "Beautiful, so beautiful," he murmured. He unfastened her necklace, and then her new amulet bag, and put them carefully beside her beads on the storage bench near the head of the bed. Then he untied her belt, stood up, and pulled her up beside him. Suddenly, he was kissing her face and her throat again, and feeling her body underneath her tunic, as though he couldn't wait. Ayla felt his excitement. His fingertips brushing her nipple sent a current of feeling through her. She leaned toward him, giving herself up to him.

He stopped then, and taking a deep breath, lifted the tunic up over her head, and folded it neatly beside her other things. Then he just looked at her, as though he was trying to memorize her. He turned her one way, and then another, filling his eyes as though they, too, needed satisfaction.

"Perfect, just perfect. Look at them, full, yet shapely, just right," he said, running a fingertip lightly along the profile of her breast. She closed her eyes and shivered from the tender touch. Suddenly a warm mouth was sucking on a nipple, and she felt a shock deep inside. "Perfect, so perfect," he whispered, changing to the other breast. He pressed his face between them, then with both hands held them together and suckled both nipples at once, making little grunting noises of pleasure. She arched her neck back and pressed toward him, feeling twin surges of sensation, then reached for his head, and noticing his hair, so full and tightly curled, let her hands enjoy the new experience.

They were still standing when he backed away and looked at her, a smile on his face, while he untied the waist cord and lowered her leggings. He couldn't resist feeling the texture of her curly blond hair, and cupping her mound to touch her warm moistness, then he sat her down. He quickly removed his own shirt, and put it beside hers, then he kneeled in front of her and removed one moccasin-type indoor shoe.

"Are you ticklish?" he asked.

"Little, on bottom."

"How does this feel?" He rubbed her foot, gently but firmly, applying pressure on the instep.

"Feel good." Then he kissed her instep. "Feel good," she said again, with a smile.

He smiled back, then took off her other shoe, and rubbed her foot. He pulled the leggings off, and put them and the shoes with her other things. Taking her hands, he pulled her up again so she stood naked in the last light of the dying coals from the Mammoth Hearth. He turned her again, from front to back, looking at her. "O Mother! So beautiful, so perfect. Just like I knew you would be," he crooned, more to himself than to her.

"Ranec, I am not beautiful," she chided.

"You should see yourself, Ayla. Then you would not say that."

"It is nice you say, nice you think, but I am not beautiful," Ayla insisted.

"You are lovelier than anyone I've ever seen."

She only nodded. He could think so, if he wanted. She couldn't stop him.

After filling his eyes, he began to touch, first lightly, all over, outlining her with his fingertips from different angles. Then in finer detail, he traced the muscle structure under her skin. Suddenly he stopped and peeled the rest of his clothes off, leaving them where they fell, and took her in his arms, wanting to feel her body with his. She felt him as well, his warm compact muscular body, his hard upright throbbing manhood. She inhaled his pleasant masculine smell. He kissed her mouth, then her face and her neck, nipping her shoulders with gentle bites that made her quiver, and murmuring under his breath, "So wonderful, so perfect. Ayla, I want you in every way. I want to see you and touch you and hold you. O Mother, so beautiful."

His hands were on her breasts again, his mouth on her nipples, sucking, then nipping lightly, then sucking both, making his little pleasure noises. He suckled one breast, trying to take as much in his mouth as he could, then the other. He got down on his knees in front of her, nuzzled her navel, and wrapped his arms around her legs and smooth round twin mounds, caressing them, then the split between. He nuzzled her hair, and lightly, teasingly, found her slit with a wet tongue. She moaned, and he felt her quivering response.

He stood up then, and eased her down to his bed, to the utterly soft, luxurious, caressing furs. He crawled in beside her, kissed her with soft biting lips, not teeth, suckled and nibbled her breasts, and with his hand, fondled and rubbed the folds and crevices of her womanhood. She moaned and cried out as he seemed to touch every place at once.

He took her hand and put it on his firm, fully engorged organ. She sat up, curled around and rubbed her cheek against it, to his delight. In the dim light, she could see the outline of her light hand against his darkness. He felt smooth. His man smell was different, though, similar but different, and his hair was wiry and tight. He moaned with sweet ecstasy when he felt a warm wetness enclose his maleness, and a drawing, pulling sensation. This was more than he'd ever imagined, more than he'd even dared dream. He thought he'd never contain himself when she began to use techniques she had so recently learned, quickly circling her tongue, drawing him in and releasing, adding firm strokes to the upright shaft. "Oh, Ayla, Ayla. You are She! I knew you were. You honor me."

Suddenly, Ranec sat up. "I want you, and I can't wait. Please, now," he said, in a throaty, strained whisper.

She rolled over and opened to him. He mounted and entered, voicing a long, shuddering cry. Then he pulled back and drove in again, and again, and again, his voice rising in pitch with each stroke. Ayla arched to meet him, trying to match his pace. "Ayla, I am ready. Here it is," he cried, straining, then suddenly, he moaned a great sigh of relief, pushed in and out a few more times, and relaxed on top of her. It took a bit longer for Ayla to relax.

After a while, Ranec pulled himself up, disengaged himself, and rolled over on his side and, propping himself up on an arm, looked down at Ayla. "I'm afraid I wasn't as perfect as you are," he said.

She frowned. "I do not understand this perfect, Ranec. What is perfect?"

"It was too fast. You are so wonderful, so perfect in what you do, I was ready too soon. I couldn't wait, and I think it wasn't as perfect for you," he said.

"Ranec, this is Gift of Pleasure, right?"

"Yes, that is one name for it."

"You think it was not Pleasure for me? I had Pleasures. Many Pleasures."

"Many, but not the perfect Pleasure. If you can wait, I think with a little time, I will be ready again."

"Is not necessary."

"Maybe not necessary, Ayla, but I want to," he said, bending down to kiss her. "I almost could now," he added, caressing her breast, her stomach, and reaching for her mound. She jumped at his touch, and still quivered. "I'm sorry, you were almost ready. If I could only have held off a little longer."

She didn't answer. He was kissing her breast, rubbing the small knob within her slit, and in an instant, she was ready again. She was moving her hips, pushing against him, crying out. Suddenly, with a surge and a cry, the release came, and he felt a warmth of wetness. She relaxed then.

She smiled at him. "I think now perfect Pleasures," she said.

"Not quite, but next time, maybe. I hope there will he many next times, Ayla," he replied, lying on his side beside her, his hand resting on her stomach. She frowned, feeling confused. She wondered if she was misunderstanding something.

In the dim light, he could see his dark hand on her light skin, and smiled. He always did like the contrast his deep coloring made against the lightness of the women he Pleasured. It left an impression no other man could make, and women noticed. They always remarked, and never forgot him. He was glad the Mother had chosen to give him such dark color. It made him distinctive, unusual, unforgettable. He liked the feel of her stomach under his hand, too, but even more he liked knowing she was there beside him in his bed. He had hoped for it, wished it, dreamed it, and even now, with her there, it seemed impossible.

After a while he moved his hand up to her breast, fondled a nipple, and felt it harden. Ayla had begun to doze, tired and a little headachy, and when he nuzzled her neck, and then put his mouth on hers, she realized he wanted her, had given her a signal again. She felt a moment's annoyance and for an instant felt an urge to refuse. It surprised her, almost shocked her, and brought her fully awake. He was kissing her neck, stroking her shoulder and arm, then feeling the fullness and roundness of her breast. By the time he took a nipple in his mouth, she was no longer annoyed. Pleasurable sensations coursed through her depths reaching her place of perfect Pleasure. He changed to her other breast, fondling both and suckling each in turn, making his little pleasure noises in the back of his throat.

"Ayla, beautiful Ayla," Ranec murmured. Then he sat up and looked down at her on his bed. "O Mother! I can't believe you're here. So lovely. This time it will be perfect, Ayla. This time I know it will be perfect."

Jondalar lay rigid on the bed, jaw clamped shut, desperately wanting to use his clenched fists on the carver, but forcing himself not to move. She had looked directly at him, then turned and went with Ranec. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her face, looking directly at him, then turning away.

It's her choice! It's her choice, he kept telling himself. She said she loved him, but how could she even know? Of course, she might have cared about him, even loved him, when they were alone in her valley; she didn't know anyone else then. He was the first man she ever met. But now that she had met other men, why couldn't she love someone else? He tried to convince himself that it was only fair for her to meet others and choose for herself, but he could not get it out of his mind that, on that night, she had chosen someone else.

Ever since he'd returned from his stay with Dalanar, the tall, muscular, almost beautifully handsome man had had his choice of women. A look of invitation from his unbelievable eyes, and any woman he ever wanted was his. In fact, they did everything they could to encourage him. They followed him, hungered after him, wished he would invite them. And he did, but no woman could match his memory of his first love, or overcome his burden of guilt over it. Now, the one woman in the world he had finally found the one woman he loved, was in another man's bed.

The mere thought that she had chosen someone else brought pain, but when he heard the unmistakable sounds of her sharing Pleasures with Ranec, he muffled a moan, pounded the bed, and doubled up in agony. It was like a hot coal was boiling in his belly. His chest felt tight, his throat burned, he breathed in muffled gasps as though choking on smoky steam. Pressure forced hot tears out at the corners of his eyes though he squeezed them shut as tightly as he could.

Finally it ended, and when he was sure, he relaxed a little. But then it started again, and he couldn't stand it. He jumped up, stood irresolute for a moment, then raced out the entrance to the new annex. Whinney's ears perked up and turned toward him as he ran past and through the exterior arch to the outside.

The wind buffeted him against the earthlodge. The sudden cold took his breath away and startled him into awareness of his surroundings. He looked out across the frozen river, and watched clouds streaming across the moon, trailing ragged edges. He took a few steps away from the shelter. Knives of wind tore through his tunic, and it seemed, through his skin and muscle to the marrow of his bone.

He went back inside, shivering, plodded past the horses and into the Mammoth Hearth again. He tensed up, listening, and heard nothing at first. Then came the sounds of breathing and moaning and grunting. He looked at his bed platform, then turned back toward the annex, not knowing which way to go. He couldn't stand it inside; he couldn't stay alive outside. Finally he couldn't bear it. He had to go out. Grabbing his traveling sleeping furs, he went back through the archway to the horses' annex.

Whinney snorted and tossed her head, and Racer, who was lying down, lifted his head off the ground and nickered a soft greeting. Jondalar headed toward the animals, spread his furs out on the ground beside Racer, and got in them. It was cold in the annex, but not nearly as cold as outside. There was no wind, some heat filtered through, and the horses generated more. And their breathing covered up the sounds of other heavy breathing. Even so, he lay awake most of the night, his mind recalling sounds, replaying scenes, real and imagined, over and over again.

Ayla woke as the first slivers of daylight stole through cracks around the cover of the smoke hole. She reached across the bed for Jondalar, and was disconcerted to find Ranec. With the memory of the night before came the knowledge that she was going to have a bad headache; the effects of Talut's bouza. She slipped out of bed, picked up the clothes Ranec had arranged so neatly, and hurried to her own bed. Jondalar was not there, either. She looked around the Mammoth Hearth at the other beds. Deegie and Tornec were sleeping in one, and she wondered if they had shared Pleasures. Then she recalled that Wymez had been invited to the Aurochs Hearth and Tronie wasn't feeling well. Perhaps Deegie and Tornec had just found it more convenient to sleep there. It didn't matter, but she wondered where Jondalar was.

She remembered that she hadn't seen him after it grew late the night before. Someone said he had gone to bed, but where was he now? She noticed Deegie and Tornec again. He must be sleeping at a different hearth, too, she thought. She was tempted to check, but no one else seemed to be up and about, and she didn't want to wake anyone. Feeling uneasy, she crawled into her empty bed, pulled the furs around her, and after a while, slept again.

When she awoke the next time, the smoke-hole cover had been moved aside and bright daylight beamed in. She started to get up, then, feeling an enormous throbbing pain in her head, dropped back down and closed her eyes. Either I am very sick, or this is from Talut's bouza, she thought. Why do people like to drink it if it makes them so sick? Then she thought about the celebration. She didn't have a clear memory of it all, but she did recall playing rhythms, dancing and singing, though she didn't really know how. She had laughed a lot, even at herself when she found she had little voice for singing, not minding at all that she was the center of attention. That wasn't like her. Normally she preferred to stay in the background and watch, and do her learning and practicing in private. Was it the bouza that changed her normal inclination and caused her to be less careful? More forward? Is that why people drank it?

She opened her eyes again, and then got up very carefully, holding her head. She relieved herself in the indoor night basket – a tightly woven basket about half full of the dry pulverized dung of grazing animals from the steppes, which absorbed liquid and fecal matter. She washed herself with cold water. Then she stirred up the fire and added hot cooking stones. She dressed in the clothing she had made before she came, thinking of it now as a rather plain everyday outfit, though when she made it, it had seemed very exotic and complex.

Still moving carefully, she took several packets from her medicine bag and mixed up willow bark, yarrow, wood betony, and chamomile in various proportions. She poured cold water into the cooking basket she used for morning tea, added hot rocks until it boiled, then the tea. Then hunkered in front of the fire with her eyes closed while she waited for the tea to steep. Suddenly, she jumped up, feeling her head throb but ignoring it, and reached for her medicine bag again.

I almost forgot, she thought, taking out her packets of Iza's secret contraceptive herbs. Whether it helped her totem fight off the spirit of a man's totem, as Iza thought, or somehow resisted the essence of a man's organ, as she suspected, Ayla did not want to take the chance of starting a baby now. Everything was too unsettled. She had wanted a baby started by Jondalar, but while she was waiting for the tea, she began to wonder how a baby, who was a mixture of her and Ranec, would look. Like him? Like me? Or a little of both? Probably both, like Durc… and Rydag. They were mixtures. A dark son from Ranec would look different, too, except, she thought with a trace of bitterness, no one would call him an abomination, or think he was an animal. He would be able to talk and laugh and cry, just like everyone else.

Knowing how Talut had appreciated her headache remedy the last time he drank his brew, Ayla made enough for several people. After she drank hers, she went out to look for Jondalar. The new annex leading out directly from the Mammoth Hearth was proving to be quite a convenience, and for some reason she was glad she didn't have to go through the Fox Hearth. The horses were outside, but as she walked through, she noticed Jondalar's traveling sleeping fur rolled up next to the wall and wondered, in passing, how it got there.

As she pushed aside the drape and stepped through the second arch, she saw Talut, Wymez, and Mamut talking with Jondalar, whose back was to her.

"How is head, Talut?" she asked as she approached.

"Are you offering me some of your magic morning-after medicine?"

"I have headache, and make tea. There is more, inside," she said, then turned to Jondalar with a full, happy smile now that she had found him.

For an instant her smile brought a like response, but just for an instant. Then his face clouded into a dark frown and his eyes filled with a look she had never seen there before. Her smile left her.

"You want tea, too, Jondalar?" she asked, confused and distraught.

"Why do you think I need it? I didn't drink too much last night, but I don't suppose you noticed," he replied in a voice so cold and distant she hardly recognized it.

"Where you go? I look for you early, but not in bed."

"Neither were you," he said. "I hardly think it mattered to you where I was." He turned and walked away from her. She looked at the other three men. She saw embarrassment on Talut's face. Wymez looked uncomfortable, but not entirely unhappy. Mamut had a look she couldn't decipher.

"Ah… I think I'll go get some of that tea you offered," Talut said, quickly ducking into the lodge.

"Perhaps I'll try a cup, too," Wymez said, and followed him.

What did I do wrong? Ayla thought, and the uneasiness she had been feeling grew into a hard knot of distress in the pit of her stomach.

Mamut studied her, then said, "I think you should come and talk to me, Ayla. Later, when we can have a moment alone. Your tea may bring several visitors to the hearth now. Why don't you get something to eat?"

"I am not hungry," Ayla said, her stomach churning. She did not want to start out with her new people doing something wrong, and she wondered why Jondalar was so angry.

Mamut smiled reassuringly. "You should try to eat something. There is mammoth meat left over from your feast, and I think Nezzie saved one of those steamed loaves for you."

Ayla nodded. As she walked toward the main entrance of the longhouse, upset and worried, she looked for the horses with the part of her mind that was always concerned for them. When she saw them she noticed Jondalar was with them, and felt a small sense of relief. She had often drawn comfort from the animals when she was troubled, and while not a completely formed thought, she hoped that turning to them would eventually make Jondalar feel better.

She passed through the foyer and into the cooking hearth. Nezzie was sitting with Rydag and Rugie, eating. She smiled when she saw Ayla and got up. For all that she was amply proportioned, Nezzie was active and graceful in her movements and, Ayla suspected, probably quite strong.

"Get yourself some meat. I'll get the loaf I put aside for you. It's the last one," Nezzie said. "And get a cup of hot tea, if you want. It's fireweed and mint."

Ayla broke off pieces of the firm, moist loaf for Rydag and Rugie when she sat down with them and Nezzie, but only picked at her own food.

"Is something wrong, Ayla?" the woman asked. She knew there was, and had some idea of the cause.

Ayla looked at her with troubled eyes. "Nezzie, I know Clan ways, not Mamutoi ways. Want to learn, want to be good Mamutoi woman, but not know when I do wrong. I think last night I do something wrong."

"What makes you think so?"

"When I go out, Jondalar angry. I think Talut not happy. Wymez, too. They leave, quick. Tell me what I did wrong, Nezzie."

"You didn't do anything wrong, Ayla, unless being loved by two men is wrong. Some men feel possessive when they have strong feelings for a woman. They don't want her to be with other men. Jondalar feels he has a claim on you and is angry because you shared Ranec's bed. But it is not just Jondalar. I think Ranec feels the same way, and would be just as possessive if he could. I raised him since he was a boy, and I have never seen him so taken with a woman. I think Jondalar is trying not to show how he feels, but he can't help it, and if he showed his anger, it probably embarrassed Talut and Wymez. That might be why they left in a hurry."

"Sometimes we yell a lot, or tease each other. We take pride in hospitality and like to be friendly, but the Mamutoi do not show their deepest feelings too much. It can cause trouble, and we try to avoid disputes and discourage fighting. The Council of Sisters even frowns on the raids the young men like to make on other people, like the Sungaea, and are trying to ban them. The Sisters say it just invites raids in return, and people have been killed. They say it's better to trade than raid. The Council of Brothers is more lenient. Most of them did a bit of raiding in their youth, and say it's just a way to use young muscles and make a little excitement for themselves."

Ayla was no longer listening. Rather than clarifying anything, Nezzie's explanation only made her more confused. Was Jondalar angry because she had responded to another man's signal? Was that a reason to get angry? No man of the Clan would indulge in such an emotional response. Broud was the only man who had ever shown the least interest in her, and then only because he knew she hated it. But many people wondered why he was bothering with such an ugly woman and he would have welcomed interest by another man. When she thought about it, she realized that Jondalar had been bothered by Ranec's interest from the beginning.

Mamut came in from the entrance foyer walking with discernible difficulty.

"Nezzie, I promised to fill Mamut's medicine bowl with help for arthritis," Ayla said.

She got up to help him, but he waved her away. "You go ahead. I'll be there. It will just take me a little longer."

She rushed through the Lion Hearth and the Fox Hearth, relieved to find it empty, and added fuel to the fire at the Mammoth Hearth. As she sorted through her medications, she recalled the many times she had applied poultices and plasters, and made painkilling drinks to ease Creb's aching joints. It was one aspect of her medicine she knew very well.

She waited until Mamut was resting comfortably, sipping a warm tea after she had drawn off and soaked away most of his ancient aches, before she asked any questions. It was soothing for her as well as the old shaman to apply her knowledge, skill, and intelligence in the practice of her craft, and it relieved some of the stress she had been feeling. Yet when she picked up a cup of tea and sat opposite Mamut, she didn't quite know where to begin.

"Mamut, did you stay long with Clan?" she finally asked.

"Yes, it takes awhile for a bad break to heal, and by then, I wanted to know more, so I stayed until they left for the Clan Gathering."

"You learn Clan ways?"

"Some of them."

"You know about signal?"

"Yes, Ayla, I know about the signal a man gives a woman." He paused, seeming to consider, then continued, "I will tell you something I have never told anyone else. There was a young woman who helped to take care of me while my arm was mending, and after I was included in a hunting ceremony and hunted with them, she was given to me. I know what the signal is, and what it means. I used the signal, though at first I was not comfortable about it. She was a flathead woman, and not very appealing to me, particularly since I'd heard so many stories about them while I was growing up. But I was young and healthy, and I was expected to behave like a man of the Clan.

"The longer I stayed, the more appealing she became – you have no idea how appealing it can be to have someone waiting on your every need or desire. It wasn't until later that I discovered she had a mate. She was a second woman, her first mate had died so one of the other hunters took her in, a little reluctantly since she came from a different clan and had no children. When I left, I did not want to leave her behind, but I felt she would be happier with a clan than with me and my people. And I wasn't sure how I would be welcomed if I returned with a flathead woman. I have often wondered what happened to her."

Ayla closed her eyes as memories flooded over her. It seemed uncanny to be learning bits and pieces about her clan from this man whom she had met such a short time ago. She fitted his story together with her own knowledge of the history of Brun's clan.

"She not ever have children, always second woman, but always someone take in. She die in earthquake, before they find me." in. He nodded. He, too, was glad to have an important bit of his past filled

"Mamut, Nezzie say Jondalar angry because I share Ranec's bed. Is true?"

"I think that's true."

"But Ranec give me signal! How can Jondalar be angry if Ranec give me signal?"

"Where did Ranec learn the Clan signal?" Mamut asked, surprised.

"Not Clan signal. Signal of the Others. When Jondalar find my valley, and teach me First Rites and Gift of Pleasure from Great Earth Mother Doni, I ask what his signal is? He put mouth on mine, make kiss. Put hand on me, make… feel Pleasure. He say that is how I will know when he want me; he tell me his signal. Ranec give me signal last night. Then he say, 'I want you. Come to my bed.' Ranec give me signal. He make command."

Mamut looked up at the ceiling, and said, "O Mother!" Then he looked back at her. "Ayla, you don't understand. Ranec certainly did give you a signal that he wanted you, but it wasn't a command."

Ayla looked at him with intense puzzlement. "I not understand."

"No one can command you, Ayla. Your body belongs to you, it's your choice. You decide what you want to do and who you want to do it with. You can go to any man's bed you choose, so long as he is willing – and I don't see much problem there – but you don't have to share Pleasures with any man you don't want to, ever."

She stopped to think about his words. "What if Ranec commands again? He said, wants me again, many times."

"I don't doubt that he wants, but he cannot command you. No one can command you, Ayla. Not against your will."

"Not even man I mate? Not ever?"

"I don't think you'd remain mated for very long under those circumstances, but no, not even your mate can command you. Your mate does not own you. Only you can decide."

"Mamut, when Ranec gave me signal, I not have to go?"

"That's right." He looked at her frown. "Are you sorry you – went to his bed?"

"Sorry?" She shook her head. "No. Not sorry. Ranec is… good. Is not rough… like Broud. Ranec… care for me make good Pleasures. No. Not sorry about Ranec. Sorry about Jondalar. Sorry Jondalar angry. Ranec make good Pleasures, but Ranec is… not Jondalar."

20

Ayla turned her head to the side as she leaned into the screaming wind, trying to shield her face from the raw blast of gale-driven snow. Each careful step forward was violently opposed by a force made visible only by the swirling mass of frozen white grit hurled against her. As the angry blizzard raged, she faced the lash of stinging pellets and squinted her eyes open, then turned away and took another few steps. Buffeted by the fierce storm, she looked again. The smooth rounded shape ahead beckoned, and she was relieved finally to touch the solid ivory arch.

"Ayla, you shouldn't have gone out in that blizzard!" Deegie "You can lose your way a few steps beyond the entrance."

"But it has been blowing like that for many, many days, and Whinney and Racer go out. I want to know where they go."

"Did you find out?"

"Yes. They like to feed at place around bend. Wind does not blow so hard, and snow does not cover dry grass too high. Blows drift on other side. I have some grain, but have not grass left. Horses know where is grass, even when blizzard blows. I will give water here, when they come back," Ayla said, stamping her feet, and shaking the snow off the parka she had just pulled off. She hung it up on a peg near the entrance to the Mammoth Hearth, on her way in.

"Can you believe it? She went outside. In this weather!" Deegie announced to the several people who were congregated at the fourth hearth.

"But why?" Tornec asked.

"Horses need to eat, and I…" Ayla started to reply.

"I thought you were gone a long time," Ranec said. "When I asked Mamut, he said he had last seen you go into the horse hearth, but when I looked you weren't there."

"Everyone started looking for you, Ayla," Tronie said.

"Then Jondalar noticed your parka was gone, and the horses, too. He thought you might have gone out with them," Deegie said, "so we decided we'd better look for you outside. When I looked out to see how the weather was, I saw you coming."

"Ayla, you should let someone know if you are going out when the weather is bad," Mamut chided, gently.

"Don't you know you make people worry when you go out in a blizzard like this?" Jondalar said, his tone more angry.

Ayla tried to answer, but everyone was talking at once. She looked at all the faces watching her, and flushed. "I am sorry. I did not mean to make worry. I live alone long time, have no people to worry. I go out and come in when I want. I am not used to people, to have someone worry," she said, looking at Jondalar, then at the others. Mamut saw Ayla's brow knit in a frown as the blond man turned away.

Jondalar felt himself flush as he walked away from the people who had been worried about Ayla. She was right, she had lived alone and taken care of herself just fine. What right did he have to question her actions, or take her to task for not telling anyone she was going out? But he had been fearful from the moment he discovered she was missing and had probably gone outside into the blizzard. He had seen bad weather – winters where he grew up were exceptionally cold and bleak – but he had never seen weather so severe. This storm had raged without letup for half the season, it seemed.

No one had been more fearful for her safety than Jondalar, but he didn't want to show his deep concern. He'd been having difficulty talking to her since the night of her adoption. At first, he was so hurt that she had chosen someone else, he had withdrawn, and was ambivalent about his own feelings. He was wildly jealous, yet he doubted his love for her because he had been ashamed that he brought her.

Ayla had not shared Ranec's furs again, but every night Jondalar was afraid she might. It made him tense and nervous, and he found himself staying away from the Mammoth Hearth until after she was in bed. When he did finally join her on their sleeping platform, he turned his back and resisted touching her, afraid he might lose control, afraid he might break down and beg her to love him.

But Ayla didn't know why he was avoiding her. When she tried to talk to him, he answered in monosyllables, or pretended to be asleep; when she put an arm around him, he was stiff and unresponsive. It seemed to her that he didn't like her any more, especially after he brought separate furs to sleep in, so he wouldn't feel the searing touch of her body next to his. Even during the day, he stayed away from her. Wymez, Danug, and he had set up a flint-working area in the cooking hearth and Jondalar spent most of his waking hours there – he couldn't stand working with Wymez at the Fox Hearth, across the passageway from the bed Ayla had shared with Ranec.

After a while, when her friendly advances had been rebuffed too often, she became confused and hesitant and drew back from him. Only then did he finally begin to realize that the growing distance between them was his own doing, but he didn't know how to resolve it. As experienced and knowledgeable as he was about women, he had no experience with being in love. He found himself reluctant to tell her how he felt about her. He remembered young women following him around, declaring their strong feelings for him, when he didn't feel strongly about them. It had made him uncomfortable, made him want to get away. He didn't want Ayla to feel that way about him, so he held back.

Ranec knew they were not sharing Pleasures. He was excruciatingly conscious of Ayla every moment, though he tried not to make it obvious. He knew when she went to bed and when she woke, what she ate and with whom she spoke, and he spent as much time as he could at the Hearth of the Mammoth. Among those who gathered there, Ranec's wit, sometimes directed at one member or another of the Lion Camp, was often the cause of raucous laughter. He was scrupulously careful, however, never to denigrate Jondalar, whether Ayla was nearby or not. The visitor was aware of Ranec's way with words, but such cleverness had never been Jondalar's strong point. Ranec's compact muscularity and insouciant self-confidence had the effect of making the tall, dramatically handsome man feel like a big oaf.

As the winter progressed, Jondalar and Ayla's unresolved misunderstanding kept getting worse. Jondalar was becoming afraid that he would lose her entirely to the dark, exotic, and engaging man. He kept trying to convince himself that he should be fair, and let her make the choice, that he didn't have any right to make demands on her. But he stayed away because he didn't want to present her with a choice which would give her the opportunity to reject him.

The Mamutoi did not seem disturbed by the harsh weather. They had plenty of food stored, and busied themselves with their usual winter diversions, snug and secure inside their semisubterranean longhouse. The older-members of the Camp tended to gather around the cooking hearth, sipping hot tea, telling stories, reminiscing, gossiping, and playing games of chance with pieces of carved ivory or bone, when they were not busy on some project. The younger people congregated around the Mammoth Hearth, laughing and joking, singing songs and practicing musical instruments, though there was a great deal of intermixing among everyone, and the children were welcome everywhere. This was the time of leisure; the time to make and mend tools and weapons, utensils and jewelry; the time to weave baskets and mats, to carve ivory, bone, and antler; to make thongs, ropes, cords, and nets; and the time to make and decorate clothing.

Ayla was interested in how the Mamutoi processed their leather and, especially, how they colored it. She was also intrigued with the colored embroidery, quill and beadwork. Decorated and sewn clothing was new and unusual to her.

"You said you would show me how to make leather red after I make skin ready. I think bison skin I am working on is ready," Ayla said.

"All right, I'll show you," Deegie said. "Let's see how it looks."

Ayla went to the storage platform near the head of her bed and unfolded a complete hide, and spread it out. It was incredibly soft to the touch, pliable, and nearly white. Deegie examined it critically. She had watched Ayla's process without comment, but with great interest.

First Ayla had cut off the heavy mane close to the skin with a sharp knife, then she beamed it; draped it over a large smooth mammoth leg bone and scraped it, using the slightly dulled edge of a flint flake. She scraped the inside to remove clinging bits of fat and blood vessels, and the outside, against the lay of the hair, taking off the outer layer of skin, which included the grain of the leather, as well. Deegie would have rolled it up and left it near the fire for a few days, allowing it to begin to decay, to loosen the hair. When she was ready, the hair would come out, leaving behind the outer layer of skin, which would become the grain of the leather. To make the softer buckskin, as Ayla had done, she would have tied it to a frame to scrape off the hair and the grain.

Ayla's next step incorporated a suggestion from Deegie. After soaking and washing, Ayla had planned to rub fat into the hide to soften it, as she was accustomed to doing. But Deegie showed Ayla how to make a thin gruel of the putrefying brains of the animal to soak the hide in instead. Ayla was both surprised and pleased at the results. She could feel the change in the hide, the softening and elasticity which the brain tissue imparted, even while she was rubbing it in. But it was after thoroughly wringing out the hide that the work began. It had to be pulled and stretched constantly while it was drying, and the quality of the finished leather depended upon how well the hide was worked at this stage.

"You do have a good hand for leather, Ayla. Bison hide is heavy, and this is so soft. It feels wonderful. Have you decided what you want to make out of it?"

"No." Ayla shook her head. "But I want to make leather red. What do you think? Footwear?"

"It's heavy enough for it, but soft enough for a tunic. Let's go ahead and color it. You can think about what to make with it later," Deegie said, and as they walked toward the last hearth together, she asked, "What would you do with that hide now? If you were not going to color it?"

"I would put over very smoky fire, so leather will not get stiff again, if it gets wet, from rain, or even from swimming," Ayla said.

Deegie nodded. "That's what I would do, too. But what we are going to do to the hide will make the rain slide off."

They passed by Crozie when they walked through the Crane Hearth, which reminded Ayla of something she had been meaning to ask about. "Deegie, do you know how to make leather white, too? Like tunic Crozie wear? I like red, but after that, I would like to learn white. I think I know someone who would like white."

"White is hard to do, hard to get leather really snowy white. I think Crozie could show you better than I could. You would need chalk… Wymez might have some. Flint is found in chalk, and usually the pieces he gets from the mine up north have a covering of chalk on the outside," Deegie said.

The young women walked back to the Mammoth Hearth with some small mortars and pestles, and several lumps of red ochre coloring material in various shades. Deegie set some fat to melting over the fire, then arrayed the colored bits of material around Ayla. There were bits of charcoal for black, manganese for a blue-black, and a bright sulphurous yellow, in addition to ochres of many colors; browns, reds, maroons, yellows. The mortars were the natural bowl shapes of certain bones, such as the frontal bone of a deer, or pecked out of granite or basalt, just as the stone lamps were. Pestles were shaped out of hard ivory or bone, except one, which was an elongated natural stone.

"What shade of red do you want, Ayla? Deep red, blood red, earth red, yellow red; that's sort of a sun color."

Ayla didn't know she would have so many choices. "I don't know… red red," she replied.

Deegie studied the colors. "I think if we take this one," she said, picking up a piece that was a rather bright earth red, "and add a little yellow to it, to bring out the red more, it might be a color you would like."

She put the small lump of red ochre in the stone mortar and showed Ayla how to grind it very fine, then had her grind up the yellow color in a separate bowl. In a third bowl, Deegie mixed the two colors until she was satisfied with the shade. Then she added the hot fat, which changed the color, and brightened it to a shade that made Ayla smile.

"Yes. That is red. That is nice red," she said.

Next Deegie picked up a long deer rib, which had been split lengthwise so that the porous inner bone was exposed at the convex end. Using the rib burnisher with the spongy side down, she picked up a dab of the cooled red fat, and rubbed the mixture into the prepared bison skin, pressing hard as she held the hide in her hand. As she worked the mineral coloring into the pores of the material, the leather acquired a smooth sheen. On leather with grain, the burnishing tool and coloring agents would have given it a hard shiny finish.

After watching awhile, Ayla picked up another rib bone and copied Deegie's technique. Deegie watched her, offered a few corrections. When a corner of the hide was finished, she stopped Ayla for a moment.

"Look," she said, sprinkling a few drops of water on the hide as she held up the corner. "It runs off, see?" The water beaded up and ran down, leaving no mark on the impervious finish.

"Have you decided what you are going to do with your red piece of leather, yet?" Nezzie asked.

"No," Ayla said. She had unfolded the full bison hide to show Rydag and to admire it herself again. It was hers, because she had dressed and treated the hide, and she had never owned so much of anything that was red, and the leather had turned out to be remarkably red. "Red was sacred to Clan. I would give to Creb… if I could."

"It is the brightest red I think I have ever seen. You would certainly see someone coming for a long way wearing that."

"It is soft, too," Rydag signed. He often came to the Mammoth Hearth to visit with her, and she welcomed him.

"Deegie showed me how to make soft with brain, first," Ayla said, smiling at her friend. "I use fat before. Hard to do, and stains, sometimes. Better using brain of bison." She paused with a thoughtful expression, then asked, "Will work for every animal, Deegie?" Then, when Deegie nodded, "How much brain should use? How much for reindeer? How much for rabbit?"

"Mut, the Great Mother, in her infinite wisdom," Ranec replied instead, with the hint of a grin, "always gives just enough brains to each animal to preserve its hide."

Rydag's soft guttural chuckle puzzled Ayla for a moment, then she smiled. "Some have enough brains, do not get caught?"

Ranec laughed, and Ayla joined him, pleased with herself for understanding the joke hidden in the meaning. She was becoming much more comfortable with the language.

Jondalar, just walking into the Mammoth Hearth and seeing Ayla and Ranec laughing together, felt his stomach churn into a knot. Mamut saw him close his eyes as though in pain. He glanced at Nezzie and shook his head.

Danug, who had been following behind the visiting flint worker, watched him stop, clutch a post, and drop his head. The feelings of Jondalar and Ranec for Ayla, and the problem that was developing because of them, was apparent to all, though most people did not acknowledge it. They didn't want to interfere, hoping to give the three of them room to work it out for themselves. Danug wished he could do something to help, but he was at a loss. Ranec was a brother, since Nezzie had adopted him, but he liked Jondalar and felt empathy for his anguish. He, too, had strong, if undefined, feelings for the beautiful new member of the Lion Camp. Beyond the inexplicable flushes and physical sensations when he was near her, he felt an affinity with her. She seemed to be as confused about how to handle the situation as he often felt about the new changes and complications in his life.

Jondalar took a deep breath and straightened up, then continued into the area. Ayla's eyes followed him as he walked over to Mamut and handed him something. She watched them exchange a few words, then Jondalar left, quickly, without saying a word to her. She had lost the thread of the conversation going on around her, and when Jondalar left, she hurried to Mamut, not hearing the question Ranec had asked her, or seeing the fleeting look of disappointment on his face. He made a joke, which she also did not hear, to cover his dismay. But Nezzie, who was sensitive to the subtle nuances of his deeper feelings, noticed the hurt in his eyes, and then saw him set his jaw and square his shoulders with resolution.

She wanted to advise him, to give him the benefit of her experience and the wisdom of her years, but she held her tongue. They must work out their own destinies, she thought.

Since the Mamutoi lived in close quarters for extended periods of time, they had to learn to tolerate each other. There was no real privacy in the earthlodge, except the privacy of each person's thoughts, and they were very careful not to intrude into another's private thoughts. They shied away from asking personal questions, or pressing uninvited offers of assistance and advice, or intervening in private squabbles unless they were asked, or if the squabbles got out of hand and became a problem for everyone. Instead, if they saw a troubling situation developing, they quietly made themselves available and waited with patience and forbearance until a friend was wanted to discuss worries, fears, and frustrations. They were not judgmental or highly critical, and they imposed few restrictions on personal behavior if it did not hurt or seriously disturb others. A solution to a problem was one that worked, and satisfied everyone involved. They were gentle with each other's souls.

"Mamut…" Ayla began, then realized she didn't know exactly what she wanted to say. "Ah… I think now is good time to make medicine for arthritis."

"I would not object," the old man said, smiling. "I have not had as comfortable a winter in many years. If for no other reason, I am glad you are here, Ayla. Let me put away this knife I won from Jondalar, and I will put myself in your hands."

"You win knife from Jondalar?"

"Crozie and I were wagering with the knucklebones. He was watching and looked interested, so I invited him to play. He said he would like to, but he had nothing to wager. I told him as long as he had his skill, he always had something, and said I'd bet against a special knife that I wanted to be made in a certain way. He lost. He should know better than to wager against One Who Serves." Mamut chuckled. "Here's the knife."

Ayla nodded. His answer satisfied her curiosity, but she wished someone could tell her why Jondalar didn't want to talk to her. The group of people who had been admiring Ayla's red leather hide broke up and left the Mammoth Hearth, except for Rydag, who joined Ayla and Mamut. There was something comforting about watching her treat the old shaman. He settled himself on a corner of the bed platform.

"I will make hot poultice for you first," she said, and began to mix ingredients in a wooden bowl.

Mamut and Rydag watched her measuring, mixing, heating water. "What do you use in the poultice?" Mamut asked.

"I do not know your words for plants."

"Describe them to me. Maybe I can tell you. I know a few plants and some remedies; I've had to learn some."

"One plant, grows higher than knee," Ayla explained, thinking about the plant carefully. "Has big leaves, not bright green, like dust on them. Leaves grow together with stem first, then get big, then come to point at end. Under leaf, soft, like fur. Leaves good for many things, and roots, too, especially broken bones."

"Comfrey! That must be comfrey. What else is in the poultice?" This is interesting, he thought.

"Other plant, smaller, does not reach knee. Leaves, like small spear point Wymez makes, dark shiny green, stay green in winter. Stem comes up from leaves, has little flowers, light color, small red spots inside. Good for swellings, rash, too," Ayla said.

Mamut was shaking his head. "Leaves stay green in winter, spotted flowers. I don't think I know that one. Why not just call it spotted wintergreen."

Ayla nodded. "Do you want to know other plants?" she asked.

"Yes, go ahead and describe another."

"Big plant, bigger than Talut, almost tree. Grows on low ground, near rivers. Dark purple berries stay on plant even in winter. Young leaves good to eat, big old ones too strong, can make sick. Dried root in poultice is good for swelling, red swelling, too, and for pain. I put dried berries in tea I make for your arthritis. Do you know name?"

"No, I don't think so, but as long as you know the plant, I'm satisfied," Mamut said. "Your remedies for my arthritis have helped, you are good with medicine for elders."

"Creb was old. He was lame and had pain from arthritis. I learn from Iza how to help. Then I help others in clan." Ayla paused and looked up from her mixing. "I think Crozie suffer pains of age, too. I want to help. You think she object, Mamut?"

"She doesn't like to admit to the failings of age. She was a proud beauty in her younger years, but I think you are right. You could ask her, especially if you can think of a way that wouldn't bruise her pride. That's all she has left now."

Ayla nodded. When the preparation was ready, Mamut removed his clothing. "When you are resting, with poultice," she said, "I have root powder of other plant I want to put on hot coals for you to smell. Will make you sweat, and is good for pain. Then, before you sleep tonight, I have new wash for joints. Apple juice and hot root…"

"You mean horseradish? The root Nezzie uses, with food."

"I think, yes, with apple juice and Talut's bouza. Will make skin warm, and inside skin warm, too."

Mamut laughed. "How did you ever get Talut to let you put his bouza outside on the skin, and not inside?"

Ayla smiled. "He likes 'magic morning-after medicine,' I say I will always make for him," she said while she applied a thick, gummy, hot healing plaster to the old man's aching joints. He lay back comfortably, and closed his eyes.

"This arm look good," Ayla commented, working on the arm that had been broken. "I think was bad break."

"It was a bad break," Mamut said, opening his eyes again. He glanced at Rydag, who was quietly taking everything in. Mamut had not spoken of his experience to anyone but Ayla. He paused, then nodded sharply with decision. "It's time you knew, Rydag. When I was a young man on a Journey, I fell down a cliff and broke my arm. I was dazed, and finally wandered into a Camp of flatheads, people of the Clan. I lived with them for a while."

"That is why you quick to learn signs!" Rydag smiled. "I thought you very smart."

"I am very smart, young man," Mamut said, grinning back, "but I also remembered some of them, once Ayla reminded me."

Rydag's smile widened. Except for Nezzie, and the rest of his Lion Hearth family, he loved these two people more than anyone in the world, and he had never been so happy since Ayla came. For the first time in his life, he could talk, he could make people understand him, he could even make someone smile. He watched Ayla working on Mamut, and even he could recognize her thoroughness and knowledge. When Mamut looked in his direction, he signaled, "Ayla is good Healer."

"The medicine women of the Clan are very skilled; she learned from them. No one could have done a better job on my arm. The skin was scraped, with dirt ground in, and it was torn open with the broken bone poking through. It looked like a piece of meat. The woman, Uba, cleaned it and set it right, and it did not even swell up with pus and fever. I had full use when it healed, and only in these later years have I felt a little ache now and then. Ayla learned from the granddaughter of the woman who fixed my arm. I was told she was considered the best," Mamut announced, watching Rydag's reaction. The boy looked at both of them quizzically, wondering how they could know the same people.

"Yes. And Iza was best, like her mother and her grandmother," Ayla said, finishing up. She hadn't been paying attention to the silent communication between the boy and the old man. "She knew all her mother knew, had mother's memories, and grandmother's memories."

Ayla moved some stones from the fireplace closer to Mamut's bed, scooped up a few live coals with two sticks and put them on the stones, then sprinkled powdered honeybloom root on the coals. She went to get covers for Mamut to keep the heat in, but while she was tucking them around him, he got up on one elbow and looked at her thoughtfully.

"The people of the Clan are different in a way that most people don't realize. It's not that they don't talk, or that the way they talk is different. It's that the way they think is a little different. If Uba, the woman who took care of me, was the grandmother of your Iza, and she learned from her mother's and grandmother's memories, how did you learn, Ayla? You don't have Clan memories." Mamut noticed an embarrassed flush, and a quick little gasp of surprise before Ayla looked down. "Or do you?"

Ayla looked up at him again, then down. "No. I do not have Clan memories," she said.

"But…"

Ayla looked back at him. "What do you mean, 'but'?" she said. Her expression was wary, almost frightened. She looked down again.

"You do not have Clan memories, but… you have something, don't you? Something of the Clan?"

Ayla kept her head bowed. How could he know? She had never told anyone, not even Jondalar. She hardly even admitted it to herself, but she had never been quite the same afterward. There were those times, that came on her.

"Does it have something to do with your skill as a medicine woman?" Mamut asked.

She looked up and shook her head. "No," she said, her eyes pleading for him to believe her. "Iza teach me, I was very young, I think I was not yet age of Rugie when she begin. Iza knew I did not have memories, but she make me remember, make me tell her again and again until I do not forget. She is very patient. Some people tell her, is foolish to teach me. I cannot remember… I am too stupid. She tell them no, I am just different. I do not want to be different. I make myself remember. I say to myself, over and over, even when Iza is not teaching me. I learn to remember, my way. Then I make myself learn fast so they won't think I am so stupid."

Rydag's eyes were opened big and round. More than anyone, he understood exactly how she had felt, but he didn't know anyone had ever felt the same way, especially someone like Ayla.

Mamut looked at her with amazement. "So you memorized Iza's Clan 'memories.' That's quite an accomplishment. They go back generation after generation, don't they?"

Rydag was listening closely now, sensing something very important to him.

"Yes," Ayla said, "but I did not learn all her memories. Iza could not teach me all she knew. She told me she did not even know how much she knew, but she teach me how to learn. How to test, how to try carefully. Then, when I am older, she said I was her daughter, medicine woman of her line. I ask, how can I claim her line? I am not her true daughter. I am not even Clan, I do not have memories. Then she tell me I have something else, as good as memories, maybe better. Iza thought I was born to line of medicine women of the Others, best line, like her line was best. That is why I am medicine woman of her line. She said someday I would be best."

"Do you know what she meant? Do you know what you have?" Mamut asked.

"Yes, I think so. When someone not well, I see what is wrong. I see look of eyes, color of face, smell of breath. I think about it, sometimes know just looking, other times, know what to ask. Then make medicine to help. Not always same medicine. Sometimes new medicine, like bouza in arthritis wash."

"Your Iza may have been right. The best Healers have that gift," the Mamut said, then a thought occurred to him, and he continued, "I have noticed one difference between you and the Healers I know, Ayla. You use plant remedies and other treatments to heal, Mamutoi Healers call upon the assistance of the spirits as well."

"I do not know world of spirits. In Clan only mog-urs know. When Iza want help of spirits, she ask Creb."

The Mamut stared hard into the eyes of the young woman. "Ayla, would you like to have the help of the spirit world?"

"Yes, but I have no mog-ur to ask."

"You don't have to ask anyone. You can be your own mog-ur."

"Me? A mog-ur? But I am a woman. A woman of the Clan cannot be a mog-ur," Ayla said, stunned at the suggestion.

"But you are not a woman of the Clan. You are Ayla of the Mamutoi. You are a daughter of the Mammoth Hearth. The best Mamutoi Healers know the ways of the spirits. You are a good Healer, Ayla, but how can you be the best if you cannot ask the help of the spirit world?"

Ayla felt a great knot of anxiety tighten in her stomach. She was a medicine woman, a good medicine woman, and Iza said someday she would be the best. Now Mamut said she could not be the best without the help of the spirits, and he must be right. Iza always asked Creb to help, didn't she?

"But I do not know world of spirits, Mamut," Ayla said, feeling desperate, almost panicky.

Mamut leaned close to her, sensing the moment was right, and drawing from some inner source a power to compel. "Yes, you do," he said, his tone commanding, "don't you, Ayla?"

Her eyes flew open in fear. "I do not want to know spirit world!" she cried.

"You only fear that world because you don't understand it. I can help you to understand it. I can help you to use it. You were born to the Hearth of the Mammoth, born to the mysteries of the Mother, no matter where you were born or where you go. You cannot help yourself, you are drawn to it, and it seeks you. You cannot escape it, but with training and understanding, you can control it. You can make the mysteries work for you. Ayla, you cannot fight your destiny, and it is your destiny to Serve the Mother."

"I am medicine woman! That is my destiny."

"Yes, that is your destiny, to be a medicine woman, but that is Serving the Mother, and someday, you may be called to serve in another way. You need to be prepared. Ayla, you want to be the best medicine woman, don't you? Even you know that some sickness cannot be healed by medicines and treatments alone. How do you cure someone who no longer wants to live? What medicine gives someone the will to recover from a serious accident? When someone dies, what treatment do you give the ones left behind?"

Ayla bowed her head. If someone had known what to do for her when Iza died, she might not have lost her milk and had to give her son to the other women with babies to nurse. Would she know what to do if that happened to someone she was taking care of? Would knowledge of the spirit world help her to know what to do?

Rydag was watching the tense scene, knowing he had been forgotten for the moment. He was afraid to move, afraid it would distract them from something very important, though he wasn't sure what it was.

"Ayla, what is it you fear? What happened to make you turn away? Tell me about it," Mamut said, his voice persuasively warm.

Ayla got up suddenly. She picked up the warm furs and tucked them around the old shaman. "Must cover, keep warm for poultice to work," she said, obviously distracted and upset. Mamut lay back, allowed her to complete her treatment of him without objection, realizing she needed time. She began to pace, nervous and agitated, her eyes unfocused, staring into space or at some internal scene. She spun around and faced him.

"I did not mean to!" she said.

"What didn't you mean to do?" Mamut said.

"Go into cave… see mog-urs."

"When did you go into the cave, Ayla?" Mamut knew the restrictions against women participating in Clan rituals. She must have done something she wasn't supposed to, broken some taboo, he thought.

"At Clan Gathering."

"You went to a Clan Gathering? They hold a Gathering once every seven years, isn't that right?"

Ayla nodded.

"How long ago was this Gathering?"

She had to stop, think about it, and the concentration cleared her mind a bit. "Durc was just born then, in spring. Next summer, will be seven years! Next summer, is Clan Gathering. Clan will go to Gathering, bring Ura back. Ura and Durc will mate. My son will be man soon!"

"Is that true, Ayla? He will be only seven years when he mates? Your son will be a man so young?" Mamut asked.

"No, not so young. Maybe three, four more years. He is… like Druwez. Not yet man. But mother of Ura ask me for Durc, for Ura. She is child of mixed spirits, too. Ura will live with Brun and Ebra. When Durc and Ura old enough, will mate."

Rydag stared at Ayla in disbelief. He didn't entirely understand all the implications, but one thing seemed certain. She had a son, mixed like him, who lived with the Clan!

"What happened at the Clan Gathering seven years ago, Ayla?" Mamut asked, not wanting to let it drop when he had seemed so close to getting an agreement from Ayla to begin training, although she had brought up some intriguing points he would like to ask her about. He was convinced that it was not only important, it was essential, for her own sake.

Ayla closed her eyes with a pained expression. "Iza is too sick to go. She tell Brun I am medicine woman, Brun make ceremony. She tell me how to chew root to make drink for mog-urs. Tell only, cannot show me. Is too… sacred to make for practice. Mog-urs at Clan Gathering not want me, I am not Clan. But no one else knows, only Iza's line. Finally say yes. Iza tell me not swallow juice when I chew, spit into bowl, but I cannot. I swallow some. Later, I am confused, go into cave, follow fires, find mog-urs. They not see me, but Creb knows."

She became agitated again, paced back and forth. "It is dark, like deep hole, and I am falling." She hunched her shoulders, rubbed her arms, as though she was cold. "Then Creb come, like you, Mamut, but more. He… he… take me with him."

She was silent then, pacing. Finally she stopped and spoke again. "Later, Creb is very angry and unhappy. And I am… different. I never say, but sometimes I think I go back there, and I am… frightened."

Mamut waited, to see if she was finished. He had some idea what she had gone through. He had been allowed at a Clan ceremony. They used certain plants in unique ways, and he had experienced something unfathomable. He had tried, but he had never been able to duplicate the experience, even after he became Mamut. He was about to say something when Ayla spoke again.

"Sometimes I want to throw root away, but Iza tell me is sacred."

It took a moment for the meaning of Ayla's words to register, but the shock of recognition nearly brought him to his feet.

"Are you saying you have that root with you?" he asked, finding it difficult to control his excitement.

"When I leave, take medicine bag. Root is in medicine bag, in special red pouch."

"But is it still good? You say it's been more than three years since you left. Wouldn't it lose potency in that time?"

"No, is prepared special way. After root is dried, keeps long time. Many years."

"Ayla," the Mamut began, trying to phrase his words just right, "it could be very fortunate that you have it still. You know, the best way to overcome a fear is to face it. Would you be willing to prepare that root again? Just for you and me?"

Ayla shivered at the thought. "I do not know, Mamut. I do not want to. I am frightened."

"I don't mean right away," he said. "Not until you have had some training and are prepared for it. And it should be a special ceremony, with deep meaning and significance. Perhaps the Spring Festival, the beginning of new life." He saw her shake again. "It's up to you, but you do not have to decide now. All I ask is that you allow me to begin training and preparation. When spring comes, if you don't feel ready, you can say no."

"What is training?" Ayla asked.

"First, I would want you to learn certain songs and chants, and how to use the mammoth skull. Then there is the meaning of certain symbols and signs."

Rydag watched her close her eyes and frown. He hoped she would agree. He had just learned more about his mother's people than he ever knew, but he wanted to learn more. If Mamut and Ayla planned a ceremony with Clan rituals, he was sure he would.

When Ayla opened them, her eyes looked troubled, but she swallowed hard, and then nodded. "Yes, Mamut. I try to face fear of spirit world, if you will help me."

As Mamut lay back down, he didn't notice Ayla clutch the small decorated bag she wore around her neck.

21

"Hu! Hu! Hu! That's three!" Crozie cried out, chuckling shrewdly as she counted the discs with the marked side up that had been caught in the shallow woven bowl.

"Your turn again," Nezzie said. They were sitting on the floor beside the circular pit of dry bess soil, which Talut had used to map out a hunting plan. "You still have seven to go. I'll bet two more." She made two more lines on the smoothed surface of the drawing pit.

Crozie picked up the wicker bowl and shook the seven small ivory discs together. The discs, which bellied out slightly so that they rocked when they were on a flat surface, were plain on one side; the other side was carved with lines and colored. Keeping the wide, shallow bowl near the floor, Crozie flipped the discs into the air. Then, moving it smartly across the red-bordered mat that outlined the boundaries of the playing area, she caught the discs in the basket. This time four of the discs had their marked side up and only three were plain.

"Look at that! Four! Only three to go. I'll wager five more."

Ayla, sitting on a mat nearby, sipped tea from her wooden cup and watched the old woman shake the discs together in the bowl again. Crozie threw them up and caught them once more. This time five discs had the side with marks carved into them showing.

"I win! Do you want to try again, Nezzie?"

"Well, maybe one more game," Nezzie said, reaching for the wicker bowl and shaking it. She tossed the discs in the air, and caught them in the flat basket.

"There's the black eye!" Crozie cried, pointing to a disc that had turned up a side which was colored black. "You lose! That makes twelve you owe me. Do you want to play another game?"

"No, you're too lucky today," Nezzie said, getting up.

"How about you, Ayla?" Crozie said. "Do you want to play a game?"

"I am not good at that game," Ayla said. "I do not catch all the pieces sometimes."

She had watched the gaming many times as the bitter cold of the long season deepened but had played little, and then only for practice. She knew Crozie was a serious player who did not play for practice, and had little patience with inept or indecisive players.

"Well, how about Knucklebones? You don't need any skill to play that."

"I would play, but I do not know what to bet," Ayla said.

"Nezzie and I play for marks and settle it out later."

"Now or later, I do not know what to bet."

"Certainly you have something you can wager," Crozie said, somewhat impatient to get on with the game. "Something of value."

"And you wager something of same value?"

The old woman nodded brusquely. "Of course."

Ayla frowned with concentration. "Maybe… furs, or leather, or something to make. Wait! I think I know something. Jondalar played with Mamut and bet skill. He made special knife when he lost. Is skill good to bet, Crozie?"

"Why not?" she said. "I'll mark it, here," Crozie said, smoothing the dirt with the flat side of the drawing knife. The woman picked up two objects from the ground beside her and held them out, one in each hand. "We'll count three marks to a game. If you guess right, you get a mark. If you guess wrong, I get a mark. The first one to get three, wins the game."

Ayla looked at the two metacarpal bones of a musk-ox which she held, one painted with red and black lines, the other plain. "I should pick the plain one, that is right?" she asked.

"That is right," Crozie said, a crafty gleam in her eye. "Are you ready?" She rubbed both palms together with the knucklebones inside, but she looked over at Jondalar sitting with Danug in the flintworking area. "Is he really as good as they say?" she said, cocking her head in his direction.

Ayla glanced toward the man, blond head bent close to the red-haired boy's. When she looked back around, Crozie had both hands behind her back.

"Yes. Jondalar is good," she said.

Had Crozie purposely tried to direct her attention elsewhere, to distract her? she wondered. She looked at the woman carefully, noticing the slight tilt of her shoulders, the way she held her head, the expression on her face.

Crozie brought her hands in front of her again and held them out, each closed into a fist around a bone. Ayla studied the wrinkled face, which had become blank and unexpressive, and the white-knuckled arthritic old hands. Was one hand pulled in just a trifle closer to her chest? Ayla picked the other.

"You lose!" Crozie gloated, as she opened the hand to show the bone marked with red and black. She drew a short line in the drawing pit. "Are you ready to try again?"

"Yes," Ayla said.

This time Crozie began humming to herself as she rubbed the bones together between her palms. She closed her eyes, then looked up at the ceiling and stared, as though she saw something interesting near the smoke hole. Ayla was tempted to look up to see what was so fascinating, and started to follow Crozie's gaze. Then remembering the cunning trick that had been used to divert her attention before, she quickly looked back, in time to see the crafty old woman glance between her palms as she snatched her hands behind her back. A knowing smile of grudging respect flitted across the old face. The movement of her shoulders and arm muscles gave the impression of movement between the hidden hands. Did Crozie think Ayla had glimpsed one of the bones, and was she exchanging the pieces? Or did Crozie just want her to think so?

There was more to this game than guessing, Ayla thought, and it was more interesting to play than to watch. Crozie showed her bony-knuckled fists again. Ayla looked at her carefully, not making it obvious. It wasn't polite to stare, for one thing, and on a more subtle level, she didn't want Crozie to know what she was looking for. It was hard to tell, the woman was an old hand at the game, but it did seem that the other shoulder was a shade higher, and wasn't the other hand pulled in slightly this time? Ayla chose the hand she thought Crozie wanted her to pick, the wrong one.

"Ha! You lost again!" Crozie said, elated, then quickly added, "Are you ready?"

Before Ayla could nod in agreement, Crozie had her hands behind her back, and out for her to guess, but she was leaning forward this time. Ayla resisted, smiling. The old woman was always changing something, trying to keep from giving any consistent signal. Ayla chose the hand she thought was right, and was rewarded with a mark in the drawing pit. The next time, Crozie changed her position again, lowering her hands, and Ayla guessed wrong.

"That's three! I win. But you can't really test your luck with only one game. Do you want to play another?" Crozie said.

"Yes. Would like to play again," Ayla said.

Crozie smiled, but when Ayla guessed correctly the next two times, her expression was much less agreeable. She frowned as she rubbed the musk-ox knucklebones together a third time.

"Look over there! What's that?" Crozie said, pointing with her chin, in a blatant attempt to distract the young woman.

Ayla looked, and when she looked back, the old woman was smiling again. The young woman took her time selecting the hand which held the winning bone, though she had decided quickly. She didn't want Crozie to feel too upset, but she had learned to interpret the unconscious body signals the woman made when playing the game, and she knew in which hand the plain bone was as clearly as if Crozie had told her.

It would not have pleased Crozie to know she was giving herself away so easily, but Ayla had an unusual advantage. She was so accustomed to observing and interpreting subtle details of posture and expression, it was almost instinctive. They were an essential part of the language of the Clan that communicated nuances and shades of meaning. She had noticed that body movements and postures also expressed meaning among these people who communicated primarily with verbal sounds, but that it was not purposeful.

Ayla had been so busy trying to learn the spoken language of her new people she hadn't made any real effort to understand their unconscious unspoken language. Now that she was comfortably, if not precisely, fluent, she could expand her communication to include language skills that were not normally considered a part of speaking. The game she played with Crozie made her realize how much she could learn about her own kind of people by applying the knowledge and insight she had learned from the Clan. And if the Clan could not lie because body language was impossible to hide, the ones she had known as the Others could keep secrets from her even less. They didn't even know they were "talking." She wasn't fully able to interpret the body signals of the Others, yet… but she was learning.

Ayla chose the hand that held the plain musk-ox knuckle-bone, and with a jab of irritation, Crozie marked a third line for Ayla. "The luck is yours, now," she said. "Since I won a game, and you won a game, we might as well call it even and forget the bets."

"No," Ayla said. "We bet skill. You win my skill. My skill is medicine. I will give you. I want your skill."

"What skill?" Crozie said. "My skill at gaming? That's what I do best these days, and you already beat me. What do you want me for?"

"No, not gaming. I want to make white leather," Ayla said.

Crozie gaped in surprise. "White leather?"

"White leather, like tunic you wear at adoption."

"I haven't made white leather in years," Crozie said.

"But you can make?" Ayla asked.

"Yes." Crozie's eyes softened with a distant look. "I learned as a girl, from my mother. At one time it was sacred to the Hearth of the Crane, or so the legends say. No one else could wear it…"The old woman's eyes hardened. "But that was before the Crane Hearth fell into such low esteem that even Bride Price is a pittance." She looked hard at the young woman. "What is white leather to you?"

"It is beautiful," Ayla said, which brought an involuntary softening to Crozie's eyes again. "And white is sacred to someone," she finished, looking down at her hands. "I want to make special tunic the way someone likes. Special white tunic."

Ayla didn't notice Crozie glance toward Jondalar, who happened at that moment to be staring at them. He looked aside quickly, seemingly embarrassed. The old woman shook her head at the young one, whose head was still bowed.

"And what do I get for it?" Crozie said.

"You will teach me?" Ayla said, looking up and smiling. She noticed a gleam of avarice in the old eyes, but something else, too. Something more distant, and softer. "I will make medicine for arthritis," she said, "like Mamut."

"Who says I need it?" Crozie snapped. "I'm not nearly as old as he is."

"No, you are not so old, Crozie, but you have pain. You do not say you have pain, you make other complaint, but I know, because I am medicine woman. Medicine cannot cure aching bones and joints, nothing can make it go away, but can make you feel better. Hot poultice will make easier to move and bend, and I will make medicine for pain, some for morning, some for other times," Ayla said. Then sensing the woman needed some way to save face, she added, "I need to make medicine for you, to pay my bet. It is my skill."

"Well, I guess I should let you pay your bet," Crozie said, "but I want one more thing."

"What? I will do, if I can."

"I want more of that soft white tallow that makes dry old skin feel smooth… and young," she said, quietly. Then she straightened up and snapped, "My skin always did get chapped in winter."

Ayla smiled. "I will do. Now, you tell me what is best hide for white leather, and I will ask Nezzie what is in cold rooms."

"Deerskin. Reindeer is good, though it is best to use it as a fur, for warmth. Any deer will do, red deer, elk, megaceros. Before you get the hide, though, you will need something else."

"What is that?"

"You will need to save your water."

"My water?"

"The water you pass. Not only yours, anyone's, though your own is best. Start collecting it now, even before you thaw out a deerskin. It must be left out where it's warm for a while," Crozie said.

"I usually pass water behind the curtain, in the basket with mammoth dung and ashes in it. It is thrown out."

"Don't go in the basket. Save it, in a mammoth skull basin, or a tight basket. Something that won't leak."

"Why is that water needed?"

Crozie paused and appraised the young woman before she answered. "I'm not getting any younger," she said, finally, "and I have no one, except Fralie… any more. Usually a woman passes her skills on to her children and grandchildren but Fralie has no time, and not much interest in working leather – she likes stitching and beadwork – and she has no daughters. Her sons… well, they're young. Who knows? But my mother gave me the knowledge, and I should pass it on… to someone. It's hard work, treating hides, but I've seen your leatherwork. Even the furs and skins you brought show skill, care, and that is necessary to make white leather. I haven't even thought of making it for many years, and no one else has shown much interest, but you asked. So I will tell you."

The woman bent forward and clutched Ayla's hand. "The secret of white leather is in the water you pass. That may seem strange to you, but it is true. After it is left in a warm place for a while, it changes. Then, if you soak hides in it, all the bits of fat that might be left come out, and any grease stains. The hair will come out more quickly, it won't rot easily, and it stays soft even without smoking, so it won't be tan or brown. In fact, it whitens the hide, still not true white, but close. Afterward, when it is washed and wrung out several times, and worked dry, it is ready for the white color."

If someone had asked her, Crozie could not have explained that urea, which was the major component of urine, would decompose, become ammoniacal, in a warm environment. She only knew that if urine was allowed to go stale, it became something else. Something that would both dissolve grease and act as a bleach, and in the same process, help to preserve the leather from bacterial decay. She didn't have to know why, or call it ammonia, she only had to know that it worked.

"Chalk… do we have any chalk?" Crozie asked.

"Wymez does. He said the flint he just brought back came from a chalk cliff, and he still has several stones coated with it," Ayla said.

"Why did you ask Wymez about chalk? How did you know I would agree to show you?" Crozie asked suspiciously.

"I did not. I have been